By Lynne Margolis
(LSM May/June 2014/vol. 7 – issue 3)
Radney Foster’s new album, Everything I Should Have Said, opens with a sinister tune about a fickle lover, an alluring tease who possesses him, like a demon, only when she pleases. Of course, he’s powerless to resist her siren-like call.
He named the song “Whose Heart You Wreck” — followed, in parentheses, by “Ode to the Muse.”
Turns out this wicked-temptress tale is really a confession about struggling to maintain the most important — and frustrating — relationship in every songwriter’s life. Even guys like Foster, who’s written or co-authored several top-10 country hits, find themselves in sometimes torturous battles with their creative spirit.
“To me, she’s a recalcitrant, drunk mistress who shows up at your house at 2 in the morning,” he says. But in the three or so decades since he and his muse began trysting in earnest, Foster has won many, many rounds, writing dozens of songs with knockout combinations of hit-worthy melodies and heartfelt words.
Long respected as a John Hiatt-level tunesmith, a songwriter’s songwriter, he notched his first top 10 in the mid-80s with Sweethearts of the Rodeo’s “Since I Found You.” That song, co-written with Bill Lloyd, earned the pair their own record deal; their self-titled debut produced several more hits. Foster’s first solo album, 1992’s Del Rio, TX 1959, sent “Nobody Wins” to No. 2 and “Just Call Me Lonesome” to No. 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart. His name shows up on at least 22 top-10 country albums — seven of them No. 1’s (by Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, and the Dixie Chicks — twice). He even topped the jazz chart with a track on a George Benson album. As he sings in “The Man You Want,” Foster has even been “a rock star once or twice.”
Sunny Sweeney, Pat Green and Jack Ingram are acolytes. The Randy Rogers Band includes a Foster song on every album, two of which he produced. “He’s respected by probably every singer-songwriter up there [in Nashville] as being one of the best,” says Rogers. “Whatever Radney’s writing is pretty much regarded as something special.”
Rucker, a fan since the Foster & Lloyd days, named an album Charleston, SC 1966 in homage to Foster, whose last album was 2012’s Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged & Lonesome, his 20th-anniversary reinvention of the original. “[When] Radney came up with Del Rio, TX, that was where everything changed for me,” says Rucker. “That record was a benchmark for me. And I still love him. Now I get to call him friend and work with him. But he’s still my idol.”
And yet, while several of those artists have multiple Grammy Awards, Foster, like Hiatt, remains in bridesmaid mode. Not that it seems to bother him. He’s thrilled by the success of artists such as Kacey Musgraves, who took home this year’s Best Country Album Grammy and the Academy of Country Music’s Album of the Year award for Same Trailer, Different Park. Musgraves, who contributes vocals to “California” on Everything, used to be in Foster’s band. He’s the one who encouraged her to leave Texas for Music City.
“I helped her move to Nashville,” he says. “I mean, I literally helped load stuff for her to get here. I’m so proud of her. She’s somebody who I feel like — well, more like an uncle than an older brother. I’m her parents’ age. I love her dearly, I really do; I think the world of her. It was ajoytohaveherinmyband;itwasajoy to help her move to Nashville; it’s always been a joy to write songs with her.”
Still youthful-looking at 54, with a full head of wavy silver hair, a quick smile, and laughing eyes behind rimless glasses, Foster landed in Nashville himself at 20 after abandoning his studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. That’s when he got the advice that would set him solidly on track as a songwriter, though it would take a few more years — and a dejected, parent-appeasing return to college after his bid for overnight- sensation status failed.
That advice came from none other than Willie Nelson, by then a bona-fide superstar. Foster had gotten hired by a film production company as a driver, shuttling cast and crew between the set and the hotel. Nelson had a cameo in the film.
“They told me they would fire me if I talked to the talent,” Foster recalls. “[But] when Willie got into the van, I was like, screw it, what are they gonna do? So I said, ‘You know, Willie, we have a couple of mutual friends.’ And I talked to him just a little bit. He said, ‘Well, what are you doin’ up here? Are you at Vanderbilt or something?’ And I said, ‘No sir, I’m trying to be a songwriter.’ And he said, ‘Oh, god. Another one of those.’
“I said, ‘Well, do you have any advice for a young songwriter who’s tryin’ to figure out how to make it work?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I do. The first hundred don’t count.’ By that time, I don’t think I’d written but 30 or 40 songs altogether. And I thought, ‘Oh, OK, you’ve gotta get really serious about it.’ It turned a corner for me in a lot of ways.”
For the next five years, Foster went to the school of hard knocks. After finishing college, he returned to Nashville and struggled, grabbing odd jobs and waiting tables while getting as cozy as he could with the muse.
“And then I got signed to a publishing deal and I met Bill Lloyd,” he relates. “And we wrote a song for a brand new band called Sweethearts of the Rodeo. It ended up being their first big hit.”
According to Randy Rogers, “If there’s a definition of an artist, it is Radney and his career, and what he’s been able to accomplish.”
More specifically, Rogers says, Foster has managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, by switching directions like a chameleon changes colors.
“He was in a band and got wildly popular and famous. And then he had a solo career and he was known for a while as not being able to get played on the radio, and then all of the sudden, he’s one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville; everybody from the Dixie Chicks to Keith Urban are cuttin’ his songs. And then he starts producing records for me and other artists, so he turned that thing on, and now he gets to do what he loves, which is play as many shows as he wants and make records, and produce people and write.”
As for how Foster got to this point, Rogers observes, “He has a knack for being commercial but at the same time, still being able to have songs that are deep enough to resonate with people on a level that isn’t dumb, but doesn’t fly over the head of the listener. He has a very human approach, with great melodies.
“I try my best to have melody at the forefront of all the songs that I write,” Rogers says, “and I learned that from Radney. His melodies are just gorgeous, and it’s very seldom you find somebody that has that ability, as well as the ability to hit a home run with the lyrics.”
Jack Ingram concurs, adding, “He obviously has such a great handle on melody. I write some good melodies in my own songs when I write by myself, but they’re not real … tight. He’s much more of a disciplined pop songwriter. A lot of people use pop as a bad term. I do not. A great pop song is as moving as it can be.”
And Foster’s new album is filled with examples to back that up: “Hard Light of Day,” “Lie About Loving Me,” “Talk Myself Out of Falling,” “The Man You Want” … whether they twang or rock or sway, they all carry that ability to adhere like Super Glue inside the brain.
“It’s gotta be singable for the average human being, and they have to be able to want to sing along to it,” Foster explains. “Sometimes you’ll hear a song on the radio and go, that’s just the dumbest thing in the world. And then you’ll find yourself hummin’ it an hour later. Well, that’s because it’s a really catchy melody. That’s a big part of what makes somebody want to listen.”
But there’s a trait that goes beyond melody and lyrics — the trait that earns Foster so much respect even among those who bear no love for some of the artists who record his songs.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Rogers. “You never sell out. You never put your name on some piece of shit just to make a paycheck. He’s had some high spots and some really low ones, where things looked like they might not turn around. But when those low spots come, those are the times where it usually drags out the best in you. And instead of conforming and writing directly toward whatever was popular, or changing anything about the way he approaches the craft of a song, he stuck to his guns, and that’s stood the test of time.”
Ingram agrees, noting some artists try so hard for popularity, they wind up writing words they wouldn’t want to sing for the rest of their lives. But for Foster, “If it’s not truthful, it’s not going into a song.”
The drunk mistress
“All songs, or good ones, almost always have to have a point of conflict,” says Foster. He points to “Mine Until the Morning” as an example. “It’s a very sexy song, but it’s sad. It’s about two people who have been broken, and it’s very obvious to them both, and they’re both just looking for that moment of human comfort.”
He’s joined on the song by another Grammy-winning female — Patty Griffin. They’ve had a mutual admiration society going for quite a while, he says. “She’ll show up at my gigs every now and then when I’m in Texas, just to dance, just to have fun. And we have at times shared a guy who’s still her day-to-day guy; when she’s not working, he works for me. So I just called her and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this duet and I think it would be really awesome if you would sing on it.’”
She heard the mid-tempo ballad, which turns a pragmatic proposition into a moment of hope amid heartache, and agreed. Their contrasting voices lend more poignancy to the song, a companion piece of sorts to “California.”
“‘Mine Until the Morning’ is what he says in that moment when those two broken people meet on the road,” Foster explains. “And ‘California’ is what he sings a year later.”
Though “California” is fictionalized, the inspiration came from a conversation he and his wife, Cyndi Hoelzle, had about her parents, both Pennsylvania natives who met in the Bay Area. While Foster and Hoelzle were vacationing where she was raised, she told him her parents’ story. “She said, ‘Everybody moves to California to start over in some way,’ because that’s kind of how it was with her folks. It just struck me, and I said, ‘Baby, I need about 10 minutes. I’ll be right back.’ And I wrote down this sketch of an idea for that song. I just thought, ‘What if you have two people who need to start over? And they fall in love on their way to California?’”
Foster says several of the album’s songs are companion pieces, though he didn’t realize it until the sequencing phase. “Whose Heart You Wreck” and the closing title tune make appropriate bookends, he says, because the latter addresses one of the most devastating experiences of his life: his split from his first wife, who subsequently moved with their son to France after he waged, and lost, a fierce custody battle.
“There was a point at which we loved each other very dearly and we created a mess, and that’s what ‘Everything I Should Have Said’ is about: my responsibility in that deal. But in one sense, I think she had trouble with the muse.”
It’s easy to believe a wife could be jealous of such a demanding mistress. Which lends a hint of irony to the fact that Hoelzle plays the femme fatale in the video they created for “Whose Heart You Wreck.” It was filmed at Dockside Studios outside of Lafayette, La., the remote, “very vibey” hideaway — and former bordello — where he recorded the album with producer Justin Tocket. (Their 14-year-old son served as director Steve Boyle’s gaffer.)
It could be said that Cyndi embodies Foster’s muse in real life as well.
“Talk Myself Out of Falling,” the kind of song Urban could likely turn into another hit, is about the night the couple fell in love. “Noise,” Foster says, is about their relationship 20 years later. “Lie About Loving Me” and “Holding Back” also share a connection. As for “Unh, Unh, Unh” … well, that’s just a more direct reference to a subject broached repeatedly in these songs. “Sometimes love should be monosyllabic,” Foster sings, his voice a mix of humor and suggestiveness. “With that ooh, ooh, ooh and that oh, oh, oh/That yes, yes, yes, not that no, no, no.”
Miranda and Blake could likely send that sexy thing right to the top of the charts. It pairs nicely with “The Man You Want,” another of those catchy-melody love songs Foster does so well. That one also comes with a dose of irony; Foster had given up writing odes to his wife after several attempts failed to earn positive reactions.
“Then I wrote this song, and I walked in the house and said ‘Hey baby, you wanna hear this new song?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ And it just knocked the breath out of her,” Foster relates. “She said, ‘Oh, baby, I love that.’ And I went, ‘What is the difference between that and all those other ones I wrote for you?’ And she kind of cocked her head and thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Well, on that one, you told the truth.’”
Score another one for Foster and his muse. Or muses.
But Foster says the album’s emotional resonance also has much do with Tocket, who challenged him to dig deep. “He really came from the point of view that if it wasn’t something that was intensely personal to me, that we weren’t gonna deal with it,” Foster explains.
For better or worse, one song that fits that category also could become an anti-hate anthem. Like “Angel Flight,” the moving tribute Foster and Darden Smith wrote for the soldiers charged with bringing home their fallen brethren, “Not in My House,” co-written with Allen Shamblin, addresses a bigger-picture issue with a first-person approach.
But it’s not just personal, it’s also based on personal experience. A couple of days before their writing session, Foster’s 11-year-old daughter came home from school and asked, “Daddy, what does the word ‘slut’ mean?”
“I had quite a pause,” Foster recalls, “and I said, ‘That is a word that, no matter how it’s used, it’s never ever used in any way other than to make someone feel small. And to hurt.’”
When Shamblin heard the story, he said, “We’ve gotta write that.”
The song builds in intensity, with Foster and Joe Stark slicing off ever- sharper guitar licks, until it reaches a dramatic peak with a powerful, Guthrie- and Seeger-invoking stanza:
“Tonight I own this stage
And me and this six string machine
are gonna kill some hate
’Cause you don’t talk to my friends that way
You don’t talk to my brother that way
And you damn sure don’t talk to my
daughter that way.”
“It’s sad that it wasn’t that hard to write,” Foster says, adding, “I don’t start out to be somebody’s mouthpiece for anything. I just set out to write what I’m passionate about.”
He cooks, too
That song highlights another Foster trait: He’s a good guy. A likable, friendly, caring person, not the kind of Nashvillian (or Nashvillain) who’s constantly looking over shoulders at parties for someone more important to talk to. He does a lot of charitable work, too; in addition to hosting an annual fundraiser at St. Luke’s Episcopal School in San Antonio for a scholarship his family established in his father’s memory, he also helped Darden Smith launch SongwritingWith:Soldiers, which works with veterans to channel damaging military experiences into healing song. He often performs at friends’ fundraisers, and he and Ingram have even auctioned off gigs for each other’s charities.
Foster also happens to be a gourmet chef and wine connoisseur. A few years ago, he began booking private dinner- and-concert experiences for well-heeled fans, including all the shopping and food prep. And wine selection; for an eight- person dinner party, he’ll spend more than a grand on wine alone.
“It’s a meal of a lifetime,” he promises.
Rogers says fabulous dinners are just one of the reasons he loves heading to Foster’s house for writing sessions.
“It’s a big deal to get to write with Radney. He’s one of the greatest we’ve ever had, not only from Texas but in country music,” Rogers says. “It’s a fun day and it’s also something that means a whole lot to me.”
(“He’s like a little brother to me. He really is,” Foster responds when hearing about Rogers’ praise.)
Ingram says songwriters in general don’t tend to be “cheerful, cheerleading types.” “They’re not real nurturers,” he notes, adding, “That’s totally cool, but when I met Radney, I was so excited that I found a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, that I could always go to their songs to be inspired, but then also to meet him and be like, man, he’s obviously gonna be a great friend. I can tell he’s a guy I can count on.
“Of all my songwriting buddies, he’s probably the most reliable. I know if he and I have something on the books, when I show up, he’s gonna be there. Which I can’t say about everybody — and wouldn’t want to. That’s part of the fun and mystery of it all.”
Likening his fellow songwriters to the superstition- and ritual-obsessed baseball players in Bull Durham, Ingram says, “Radney reminds me of the Kevin Costner character. He’s like, ‘Yeah, man, it’s all precious and all that shit, but just fuckin’ pitch the ball.’ He’s such a steadying force. That’s why I love him.”
But one of his favorite stories about his friend has to do with Foster’s softer side, and their mutual respect for music and one other.
Songwriters tend to be insecure; for Ingram, that meant it was sometimes hard to tell when he hit the proverbial mark with a song. One night, he and fellow singer-songwriter Jon Randall were hanging out with Foster, discussing a potential project.
“So I played them a song. And it was a song that I had written and rewritten at my piano, late at night, over the course of a few months. I really put some effort into this song, to just be as honest as it needed to be, as honest as I could be; to really dig out the truth,” Ingram recalls.
“We were drinking whiskey, and Radney gets pretty funny. He’s a good drunk; an emotional drunk. And he does consider himself a mentor of mine, as I do him. But it’s not something we talk about in conversation all the time. Anyway, I played him this song; it’s called ‘All Over Again.’ And I looked up and Radney was bawling — full-on, snot-coming-out-of-his-nose crying. And I was like, ‘All right! You fuckin’ did it. You made one of your heroes listen to a song all the way through — it’s a fucking 6-minute song — and you nailed him.’ … It really was a moment where I was like, yes, I do think of you as a mentor, and the fact that I really did honestly nail you with this song is something that every songwriter, when you’re around other songwriters, is trying to do. I’ve never looked back, as far as second-guessing myself. I’ll never do it again.”
Ingram is just about done recording a new album, but when he spoke for this story, he was searching for one more tune.
“I want a Song of the Year,” he admits. “I want something that’s, like, a game- changer for me. If I’m gonna go in and cut one more song, I’m just lookin’ for something that’s the best that I can find.
“That’s why I’m looking through Radney’s stuff. I’m looking for those kinds of songs.”