Radney Foster returns to the Musical Instrument Museum.EXPAND
Radney Foster returns to the Musical Instrument Museum.
Cyndi Hoelzle

How Radney Foster Wrote Country Hits 'Breaking Rules Every Step of the Way'

On Friday, September 1, country music singer and songwriter Radney Foster returns to the Musical Instrument Museum for an intimate night of music that spans his career of more than 30 years. Though Foster doesn’t play outlaw-style country music, he’s a gentle rebel in his own way, choosing the career path of an artist rather than the pursuit of fame and glory.

His inherent sincerity has done him good. Foster’s been actively writing and performing music since the mid-‘80s when he formed a duo called Foster & Lloyd with Bill Lloyd. At that time, Foster was also working professionally as a songwriter at a Nashville publishing company.

For their first run, Foster & Lloyd were only together from 1986 to 1990. But they made the most of that time, penning nine songs that hit Billboard before moving on to pursue solo careers.

Since then, the Texas-born crooner Foster has released numerous singles, more than 10 full-lengths, and continuously performs in a few incarnations – solo, with his guitarist Eddie Heinzelman, and with a full band. In addition to duetting with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Darius Rucker (yes, from Hootie and the Blowfish), songs that Foster has penned have become hits for mainstream country stars like Keith Urban.

Foster has also just published a book of short stories titled For You to See the Stars. We talked to him about his long-running career, that new writing endeavor, and what you’ll get if you’re attending the upcoming show.

Hi Radney. You’re traveling today?
I'm on my way from Nashville to Atlanta to write with Christian Bush this afternoon, and I have a gig there tomorrow.

Throughout your history, you’ve collaborated a lot with other musicians. Are you still doing much of that?
Oh sure, if you look at my recent record, probably half the songs I wrote on my own, the rest with other people. That's about normal for my records. Overall, I'd say about a third of what I write are songs I write on my own. There’s a good one-third to one-half of what I write that I'm writing with some other artist because they like what I do and have reached out to work together. That doesn't mean that it always turns into something. Sometimes you'll write three songs with someone that never end up on a record. I’ve had times where I wrote something with another artist, they didn't do anything with it, I thought it was cool and put it on my record, and then from there another artist decided to cover it.

Do you find it harder to write for someone else?
Only if the other person tends to act out of fear, which, when you're dealing with people on major labels, it's remarkable how often that happens.

What drives that fear, primarily?
That the song won't get played on the radio. You can be an independent band and build a following by saying what you want to say and being who you are as an artist. But, if you're playing the game, it’s different, which in the pop world or in the country world means you've got to get on the radio in order to sell tickets to fill a stadium.

That’s a lot of pressure, and obviously not your bag.
All of my successes in that world came from breaking rules every step of the way. It came from really looking at it from an artistic perspective. That's the biggest thing I learned from being in Foster & Lloyd and in my career as a songwriter – it’s a whole other thing to try and be an artist if that's what you were after. I was fortunate in that's what brought me success. I'm not afraid to collaborate; I like it. It makes you step back and realize that in some cases, the other person is the singer, they’re the voice, they’re the character, they’re the actor, or whatever the situation is. I don’t want to sound crazy [laughs], but it’s something I found when writing short fiction, too – the characters would tell me things like “You might say it that way, but I wouldn’t say it that way.” They became individuals with their own personalities, and that’s a good thing to keep in mind when you’re co-writing. In that situation, I’m the mentor and they’re the vocalist. They’re the one who’s going to walk on stage and sing it.

Speaking of writing from characters’ perspectives, you have a new book of short fiction, right?
Yes, For You to See the Stars. It’s a two-part project, a book and CD. I had written in the past, prose for things like articles on songwriting for Acoustic Guitar magazine, I wrote a whole thing on alternate tunings for Guitar Player magazine, those types of things. I've written liner notes. But I'd never delved into writing fiction in any way.

What inspired you to get into short story writing?
It really started about four or five years ago. I journaled a lot early in my life, then quit for around 15 years. Maybe seven years ago, I started doing that more in my quiet time. I am kind of a creature of habit, I have a whole Buddhist-meets-Christian morning quiet time and during that I started writing extemporaneously, writing poems, just writing in different forms. Some of it ended up being songs, some were characters for stories. I wrote some little essays, like one about my first band. So, about two-and-a-half years ago, I got really sick with pneumonia and laryngitis. I couldn’t really speak for a month and had to cancel several gigs. I wrote a note to my wife that said, “I think there's a short story in this song I’ve recently written and I think I'm going to try and write it to keep from going crazy.” She wrote me back and said, “That’s good because you’re driving me crazy." [laughs] So, I did. I wrote it and it was to the song “Sycamore Creek,” it’s the last story in the book and the last song on the record. When I was done, she read it and told me I should continue – that it was good – so I did.

And you kept going from there?
Yes. Prior to that, through a friend, I’d met Shari Smith of Working Title Farm. She is my publisher, as well as a great author and essayist in her own right. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was willing to read something of mine. I ended up getting some work to her and she called me – and she cusses a lot – and said, “Goddamn, Radney, you can write pretty good.” Another thing I didn't know was that a year before that, her publisher told her that if she ever found something she wanted to publish, they'd give her an imprint, so she offered me a book deal. She was my salvation. She’s great to work with and encouraging and taught me a lot about how to self-edit. I had some other big publishers interested, but they wanted novels. They didn’t want to take a chance on short fiction.

Did you write outside of your comfort zone with the characters and scenarios in these stories?
Oh sure, mostly, but things ultimately go back to your own life, though. “It Ain’t Done with Me,” the song is about not being able to let go and carrying regret around with you. It’s a Waylon Jennings-meets-the-Rolling-Stones country rocker, but when I thought about it from the perspective of writing a story, I saw that I was trying to come up with a character, but was also trying to figure out things in my own life. A good example is “Greatest Show on Earth,” that's about my dad and his buddies playing in a guitar circle on my back porch in the summertime. That was a regular occurrence and my musical education. The story that goes with it, called “Bridge Club,” is about one day in the life of a boy that's 4 years old in 1963.

Being surrounded by music as a kid, when did you realize that’s what you wanted to do?
Really early on. I mean, what kid doesn't stand in front of the mirror with a guitar dreamin' he's gon' be Elvis or a Beatle or Merle Haggard? That was just as true of me as any kid in the ‘60s with a guitar around his neck. I think I started playing around 11, but in those days, you didn’t think of it as a career option — real people didn't do that for a living. I grew up in my grandfather's house next to my great grandfather's house. My great-grandfather was the first lawyer in Del Rio, and my father was a lawyer, too. At that point, I knew my lot in life was to go to college and get a good education, come back home, and take over the family business. But my junior year of college, music got in the way of that.

You mentioned earlier your very first band, was it a country band?
No, we were children of the ‘70s, and in junior high. We played Beatles and Buck Owens, and Steppenwolf. We were bleeding those lines together, the different styles, just playing songs that we liked. We were from West Texas, you couldn't take the twang out of our mouths. We were brown and white, from different religious and political backgrounds, we talked about everything, argued about everything. We visited each other's churches, so we could understand one another. We not only were better musicians from playing together, but we became better people for it, too.

Your duo, Foster & Lloyd, that began in the ‘80s with Bill Lloyd came back together in 2010 after a good 20-year break, right?
Yes. We did a reunion record about seven or eight years ago, which was a lot of fun, and in the little indie world, it was successful.

Do you two have any future plans?
I don't think either of us is against it, it's just more a matter now of finding the time. I know my next year is gonna be spent either at a bookstore or a record store or in front of someone in a nightclub or small theater.

Tell us about the live show we’ll see here in Phoenix.
Well, you'll get to hear a bunch of new songs and I'm gonna play some old ones too — some cult favorites from the last 30 years. Also with any luck, I might have the books by then and people can get those, too. For this show, it's me and my guitarist Eddie Heinzelman, both on acoustics. That's what we did last time we played at the MIM. I had many people in the crowd say they didn't know that two guys could make that much noise [laughs].

Radney Foster performs at 7:30 p.m. on September 1 at the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard in Scottsdale. Tickets are $33.50 to $38.50. Call 480-478-6000 or visit mim.org.

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