Del Rio Revisited: Radney Foster and the Remaking of a Classic Album
After three critically acclaimed albums, the duo of Foster & Lloyd decided to call it a day in 1990. A couple of years later, Radney Foster came back on the country scene with a new shorter haircut, a solo deal with Arista Records and a killer album of country songs. And not just any country songs, either. There were honky tonkers and shuffles, heartbreaking ballads and stories about larger-than-life characters. Del Rio, TX 1959 was an album of modern-day classic country music, as befitting someone who grew up in West Texas in the 1960s.
While 1992 was the height of Garth-mania and the birth of the country line-dance craze, there was still plenty of room on radio for traditional-minded artists like Alan Jackson and Vince Gill, rockers like Marty Stuart and folk-tinged singers like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Suzy Bogguss. In that environment, Del Rio was a hit and spawned several Top 20 singles, including “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Nobody Wins.”
Sadly, Del Rio has since gone out of print on CD. After years of fielding requests to reissue the album, Foster decided to get the music back to the fans to mark the album’s twentieth anniversary. But rather than re-record the songs with the same old arrangements, he wanted to rethink it and do something a little different. “There are a couple of ways to do that. One, you make it a live album, and the other is to do something in the studio with completely different instrumentation,” he explains. “I kind of chose a mashup of both of those routes, if you think about it.” The resulting album, Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome, is available on Foster’s own Devil’s River Records. It was recorded over the course of three days in Steve Fishell’s Cedar Creek Studios in Austin, Texas. All the songs from the original album were re-imagined and re-recorded live, with very few overdubs and all-new bluegrass-tinged arrangements. The crack band includes Martie Maguire of The Dixie Chicks on fiddle, Jon Randall Stewart on guitar and mandolin, Fishell (the producer of the original Del Rio album) on Dobro, Michael Ramos on accordion and keyboards, Matt Borer on percussion and Glenn Fukanaga on upright bass. “It’s a lot of bluegrass players, and guys like Ramos, who was really raised on conjunto and the whole Mexican influence on music in south Texas,” Foster comments. “Choosing musicians like that is going to make you immediately rethink the arrangements on everything.”
Foster and co-producer Justin Tocket spent considerable time going over the original album. Foster notes that there are some songs that he hasn’t played in years, so prior to recording, he took a half-hour each night after his children were in bed to rehearse. Tocket added his suggestions, including taking one of the album’s big rockers, “A Fine Line,” and slowing it way down. “He said, ‘It’s a devastating lyric, and that should be a ballad if we’re going to unplug it,’ And he was right,” Foster says.
The stripped-down setting puts the focus on Foster’s lyrics, and the songs are as strong today as they were twenty years ago. The hits like “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Nobody Wins” are as catchy as ever. “Louisiana Blue” gets refreshed courtesy of Maguire’s fiddle, and the story of “Old Silver” becomes even more personal, with Foster’s intense vocals at the forefront. “Old Silver was my grandfather’s nickname,” Foster explains. “He went white-headed very young in life, which is where I get my silver hair from these days. He was a great raconteur and a storyteller, and he made and lost two fortunes in his lifetime.” “Old Silver” is largely fictionalized, incorporating elements from both B-Westerns and Irish ballads, but it contains a few elements of his grandfather’s life. The best snakeskin boots you ever have seen that are referenced in the song did belong to his grandfather and are shown in the CD artwork.
The one new addition to Del Rio Revisited is “Me and John R.” Foster calls it a little lagniappe, or something extra, to entice people to buy the album. It was co-written with Darden Smith and Randall as Foster was combing through his catalog, looking for a new song to add to the album. “I’d had this title for awhile, and I always thought I was going to write it myself,” he says. “But I’m sitting here with Jon R. (Randall), my father’s name was John R., and Johnny Cash was John R. So we wrote a little story about a guy leaving the past and a relationship, so it’s sad, but there’s also this taste of freedom and something new. It’s a double-edged sword, and life’s like that a lot. When we got through writing it, I thought that it just seemed to fit, and that’s what should go on the record.”
After twenty years, Del Rio has become an influential album among Foster’s fellow musicians. Darius Rucker named his latest album Charleston SC 1966 as a tribute to it. Maguire and Randall, both of whom grew up in Dallas playing bluegrass in various bands, told Foster that they wore out the original version of Del Rio.
Foster acknowledges the double-edged sword of compliments like that. On one hand, it’s an honor that such talented musicians were influenced by his work as they were growing up. On the other hand…
“Yeah, it means I’m old!” he says with a laugh. “It’s a young man’s game as a business, and I’ve always known that, so in many respects I’m thankful that I still get to do it. But I’m also thankful that the musicians who grew up listening to my music want to play on my records. There are a lot of fiddle players that you can hire, but it’s not every day that you can call up Martie Maguire or Jon Randall and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play on my album?’”
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