No depression

With a new album, Radney Foster isn't so "heartbroke and then some" anymore

During one unremarkable weeknight in the fall of 1997, a remarkable scenario was unfolding inside Poor David's Pub. The dank and shabby venue was packed with a bizarre yet communal cross-section of Lower Greenville types: scruffy indie rockers, gimme-capped frat boys, perfumed yuppies, aging cowboys. People were literally crying in their beers, singing at the tops of their lungs and swaying to the saddest sounds they could hope to hear on that hot night. All eyes were fixed on the lone performer standing beneath the lone spotlight.

His clear, melancholy voice rang out over the crowd's collective one. "No amount of regret could win back your love," he sang. "You see, it's easier said than done." Like a rural church choir, the room split into easy two-part harmony; one middle-aged, Stetsoned couple belted out the chorus with the passion of guilt-stricken infidels. "Words can't rebuild all the trust my lies killed." Cheaters or not, that night every music-lover in the room could imagine the awkwardness and pain of such a trespass.

The club's owner, David Card, may as well have posted a sign at the door: Radney Foster's gonna bring us his pain, and we're gonna do our damnedest to meet him halfway. The smooth-jawed, mop-haired singer-songwriter--the same one who kept crossover audiences hopping a few years before with such upbeat Billboard charters as "Just Call Me Lonesome" and "Nobody Wins"--was in the midst of a real-deal depression, and not only did it show, but it carried like heavy humidity wafting into every shadowy corner of the club. He played like a man mourning the death of his own creative fire, a man convinced this set may be his last. That, folks, is what you call a performance.

Leapfrog to spring 1999. On the big stage at the Gypsy Tea Room, a full-on band rips into its third raucous tune of the night, the frontman jerking around with unchecked enthusiasm. The crowd watches with a more cautious brand of energy. What happened to the other Radney Foster, the patron saint of gut-wrench misery? Like a phoenix, Foster comes off as a reborn man with a new lease on life and career. This time the sign at the door should read: Heads up, and welcome to Radney's round two.

"My give-a-shit meter went to nothing," Foster says a few hours before the Gypsy Tea Room set. The Nashville resident's in town, lounging backstage before the first date on a preliminary promotional tour to coincide with the release of his third solo record, See What You Want to See. When the native Texan talks of his slump of two years ago, his bespectacled eyes get a little darker, his twanged voice a little deeper. "I was as numb as the day is long. I barely wrote for a year."

This lowest of emotional lows, he explains, was caused by a heated custody battle with his ex-wife over his young son. She had met and married a European and moved herself and child to France. Foster was devastated. "I spent a year trying to stop it. Tennessee is the only state in the union that doesn't consider the best interest of the child," he sighs. "I lobbied the legislature to try to change the law. I failed."

Despite his kid living several thousand miles away, Foster eventually set to "figuring out how to be a dad from that great a distance." Sets like the one at Poor David's Pub were what paid his rent through his funk; his slow resurgence through early 1998 brought a new spate of songs, the first real batch since the recording of his 1995 sophomore effort Labor of Love. His longtime label, Arista, was dubious about the commercial viability of the new work. It wasn't as "country" as his previous bent--one he started in the late '80s as half of the singer-songwriter duo Foster & Lloyd and continued on his stellar 1992 solo debut, Del Rio, TX 1959.

"But still, it was like, 'You don't like my new songs? Tell me something that's gonna hurt me,'" he says through a sneer. He told the label, "I'm writing this because this is what I wanna do." So Arista Nashville sent Foster and his demo tapes down to its Texas branch, Arista Austin. The Austin reps, more attuned to amorphous pop leanings than their narrower Tennessee counterparts, loved the material and signed up Foster for an album.

"It's a rock record," he says of the new disc. "Triple-A, Americana, alternative radio--whatever. Nick Lowe, John Hiatt. I never thought my category was any different anyway. I just had pedal steel on the guitar. I only thought I was country for about, mmmmmm..."--he holds up his forefinger and thumb to form an inch-wide gap--"...about that long."

See What You Want to See is, in fact, a pristine example of what happens when several American genres rush together at once, only to find themselves in a recording studio. On the good hand, there's a real sense of envelope-pushing and nose-thumbing energy; on the predictable hand, there's the slicked-up, watered-down effect of the individual elements. This is more contemporary country than anything else, but that just means it's really straight-up pop--which is what turns up these days when fresh ideas get overthought and overprocessed by major-label sensibilities. Hell, blame producer Darrell Brown. Arista Nashville shouldn't be surprised if its nearly orphaned former signee turns up some early-charting hits.

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