The 9513’s Interview With Radney Foster

Ken Morton, Jr. | July 19th, 2010

Radney Foster

Radney Foster took the stage at a concert in Sacramento this past May and had a crowd watching. Normally, this wouldn’t be news. Foster has been touring small clubs and venues much of his career, entertaining crowds of hundreds- if not thousands- along the way. This one was different, however.

Foster was one of sixteen different acts that night, ranging from new up and coming acts like The Band Perry to ones on top of the world like Chris Young. Each took turns performing a handful of songs before turning the stage over to the next act. Yet a truly remarkable thing happened as Foster came on the stage.

At stage-left, nearly half of the performing acts stopped their backstage conversations. Some stopped their autograph signings. They turned from stars and performing artists into fans and crowded around the small stage. Unlike any other artist that night, Radney Foster drew a crowd of some of country music’s brightest names who watched in admiration of one of this industry’s strongest songwriters. Jack Ingram, Emily West, One Flew South, Young, Bomshel, Chely Wright, Bryan White and more watched an industry songwriting legend. Emily West said later that night that singing harmony on Foster’s closing single “Nobody Wins” was the highlight of her night.

There lies the paradox that is Radney Foster. He’s a performing artist that has met moderate commercial success, been lauded critically with nearly every single release he’s made, yet has been wildly successful as a songwriter for other artists. He’s worked with Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, Sara Evans, Tanya Tucker, Gary Allan, Pat Green, Dixie Chicks, the before-mentioned Ingram and more.

The 9513 has a chance to catch up to Foster and talk a bit about his career and some upcoming projects.

How did the CMA Fest go for you?

Since I didn’t have to do much but go to the Darius Rucker show that Monday night, it went really well. [Laughter] I’m doing an acoustic tour with Jewel so I had to run on back over and join her on that.

That’s a great lead-in to my next question. How did that evolve? The two of you seem an interesting combination of artists.

I ran into her manager with my manager by happenstance at a CMA event a few months ago. We got talking and they said that she was working on this upcoming tour and making light talk. They said, “You know all the new artists, the Texas artists, the Americana and left-of-center acts that are out there. We need somebody to open for her.” I stopped them and said, “I’ll do it!” She’s like, “No no no no no no, there’s not enough money.” I asked where they were playing and she named all the cities and I said, “I’ll do it. It’ll be a lot of fun.” I’m used to playing with acoustic guitars and they were just all flabbergasted that I would do it and really delighted. That’s really how the whole thing started.

Have you had a chance to collaborate with Jewel as of yet?

We haven’t really collaborated on anything yet because the tour is just getting started. There is a rumor that we’re working up a duet. I don’t know where that rumor came from. [Laughter] It’ll be just a live thing but we’re wanting to do Johnny and June’s “Jackson” together.

Jewel seems to have enough sass to pull off the June Carter part well, can you cover the great Cash?

I think she does too. Whether I can cover Johnny’s part is another story altogether.

I think your time in the industry and songwriting legacy gets you a free pass, doesn’t it?

That’s probably true. You have to have a certain amount of gray hair on your head to be able to get that free pass.

Radney FosterOur own Sam Gazdziak did an interview with you about a year ago and you guys talked about how the theme on your latest album Revival was you coming full circle in your life. I know your oldest son who has been living in France for nearly the last 15 years has come home to college about three blocks from your house. It seems that theme is continuing on for you a bit.

It is. He’s been there a year now and I think he’s currently in the process of trying and figure a way to live off campus. So we’re in that debate, talking about whether a sophomore is too young to be living away from the campus. So we’re going through all the ups and downs of normal father-son relationships. He’s headed over to his mom’s in France for a couple weeks and then he’s coming home and has a summer job working for a construction and landscaping company. So he’ll be like a lot of other young boys with a strong back and not much else going on. It’s a good way to make some money. My guitar player and I went out with him to go amp shopping and he told my son, “You’re the most rock and roll guy I know.” My son said, “Why’s that?” And he said, “Because you’re buying an amp before you own a car.”

The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, now then, does it?

Maybe not. He’s very talented. I think he’s a really bright lyricist. I certainly didn’t write lyrics that are as well put-together or as heartfelt as he does at his age–at a mere 18 years old. I certainly didn’t do it that well at his age.

When I saw you last time in Sacramento, you made a comment up on stage that was something to the effect of, “Thank God for Keith Urban.” What has that relationship meant to you?

Keith’s such a great guy. I know he’s not a traditionalist in the best sense of the word, he’s doing what some people are calling contemporary country, or pop-country or modern country. But he really has a sense of honoring of where the roots of country music came from. He can go toe-to-toe with you on every Glen Campbell or Merle Haggard song ever. And he really reminds me a lot of Glen Campbell. He has that high tenor voice, is a dynamic performer and is just an outstanding guitar player. He has some of that going on. That’s what Glen did. He honored country music but pushed the envelope at the same time. I really didn’t answer your question, though. The thing about him is he’s become a friend. That’s the best thing you can say about someone. He loves my songwriting and I can’t thank him enough for doing my songs. He certainly doesn’t need my help or anybody else’s help to write a hit song. But he’s wise enough. The best singer/songwriters ever that have made it into the icon stratosphere always cut some of other people’s songs. James Taylor cut some Carole King songs. Merle Haggard cut Harlan Howard songs. The list goes on and on. He’s got sense enough to mine something that someone else did and then make that his own. If you look at his records, he still writes the majority of his songs, but he’s not afraid to go find something that somebody else has written if it speaks to his heart.

Speaking of speaking to the heart, your current single, “Angel Flight,” does that. Talk to me about the charity receiving the proceeds of that single, the Texas Air National Guard Family Support Foundation.

Well, each state has its own Guard. And each state has its own civilian support groups that help families in crisis. This is the one from Texas. I got involved with them after writing the song “Angel Flight” with my friend Darden Smith. We met several guys within the Guard. We met with the guys that are with the family support division. When mom and/or dad are deployed overseas, that puts an awful amount of stress on the families. A lot of Guard guys have a good job and after they deploy, they often take a hit in pay in order to go overseas. There’s lots of needs that go along with that. After meeting with those guys, it seemed like a natural way to help. The song was inspired by a series of Angel Flights that brought home a group of guys known as the Red River Four. They were all known well within their unit. It’s pretty organic. It really came about naturally. I can’t speak highly enough of these folks. The pleasure I’ve had working with these guys is only rivaled by the professionalism they go about their business.

You’ve been in the studio recording with Bill Lloyd for a possible Foster & Lloyd reunion album, I understand?

I have indeed. We’ve cut six songs. They’ve gone really well. I like everything we’ve cut so far. We got the first one back mixed this past week. I think we’ll be done with these six later this month. I’m touring now and Bill is out with Cheap Trick in Las Vegas. Cheap Trick is doing something with an orchestra doing the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper live. And Bill works with the band when they’re doing that.

Any themes either lyrically or sonically coming out of these early recordings?

I think we’re a little more mature with our lyrics as writing is concerned. But we’re still bringing some fun in our mixing and in mixing genres as much as possible in the melodic sense of what we’re doing. It still sounds to me similar to what we were doing live 25 years ago. It’s a lot of fun.

Walk me through your writing process. Is it an active daily structured process for you or is it more as inspiration hits?

It’s both. I think inspiration is always there to hit. I think you have to look for it. You have to be willing to pull the car over and be late. You have to be willing to say that you’ll be extra sleepy tomorrow because you have to write this song. But what I didn’t have early in my career was the discipline to say, “Okay, Tuesday I’m going to write.” You really set aside time for other writers and yourself to work and perfect the craft of journaling and songwriting. That’s the only way you get better.

For you, is it lyrics first or melody first? Or is it a combination of both?

Anything I can do to trick myself into writing a new song is okay by me. I don’t have it either way. However it shows up is cool.

Any interesting co-writes or collaborations in recent history that we should know about?

Let me think. Other than Bill Lloyd, I can’t think of any others. No, I have been working with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks which has been really cool. And I’ve been writing a bunch with Jack Ingram. He’s like a little brother to me. We’ve become very good friends and I have such respect for him. He’s a great guy and he’s really fun to write with. We still have a few tricks up our sleeve together.

I’ve got one last question for you–meant open-ended: what is country music to Radney Foster?

You can’t do better than what Waylon said, man. It’s three chords and the truth.

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  1. Richard
    July 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Radney’s great.

  2. Ollie
    July 19, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Actually, it was Harlan Howard who said that country music is “three chords and the truth.” (Waylon was singing a lyric written by Harlan.)

  3. Michelle
    July 19, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Complete awesomeness on that couch!LOL! SUPER talented guy!!!

  4. Nicolas
    July 19, 2010 at 10:58 am

    @Ollie: And it was Sara Evans who sang it, lol. What a great song.

  5. Matt Bjorke
    July 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Nicolas,

    Sarah’s version was a cover of the tune Waylon originally did, written by Harlan Howard.

  6. Jon
    July 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    The phrase is older than the song.

  7. Rick
    July 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Nice interview, Ken. I would have asked Radney when he’s going to get back together with Kim Richey for a songwriting session to see if lightning can strike twice in the same room…

  8. txcountryfan
    July 21, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Wow Rick doesn’t trash a artist who happens to be a Democrat.

  9. Jeff
    July 22, 2010 at 7:19 am

    My all time favorite band is the Jayhawks. My all time favorite singer/songwriter is Radney Foster. I think I muttered, a cool decade ago, how amazing it would be if Gary Louris and Radney worked together someday.

    And now here we are.

    Great interview!

  10. SHORESLADY
    July 24, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Radney’s hot show stunned a delighted crowd at a Pontiac, MI bar venue a decade or so ago wondering “What’s this great artist doing here?” He’s won fans one at a time, the hardest way but once won, they stay won. I surely have.

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