By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
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Still, and not surprisingly, Foster's vision keeps the album above the reach of too-trite categorization. The songs themselves, as craft and melody, are rock-solid. From the hypnotic pull of "God Knows When" (which offers the argument that Foster is, in fact, Neil Finn's Stateside cousin) to the yodeling quirks of "Angry Heart" to the ethereal duet with Austin's Abra Moore on "I'm In," the whole is a sure sign that Foster has left his darker nights and songwriting drought behind him.
The live show at Gypsy Tea Room drove home that point. Fortified by a Nashville rock band called Joe, Marc's Brother, Foster's new material rang out that April 22 night with a rangy confidence his loyal following hadn't witnessed in years. The 40-year-old kid was back and ready to rock. In fact, when it's pointed out to him that his backing band--a scruffy, good-natured lot--comes off more like Guided By Voices or Yo La Tengo than anything out of Opryland, Foster doesn't miss a beat. "They are indie rockers," he insists. "I hired them to back me because they're such a good fit, such great musicians. They actually remind me of the Attractions."
On that note, Foster's songwriting has always paid as much homage to Elvis Costello and Dave Edmunds as it does the Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings. Even while writing under the Nashville gun in the early 1980s, Brill Building-style, his ear wasn't immune to what was happening in Los Angeles and New York. He mentions Blondie and the Pretenders, but explains that "what made me love country music in the first place was the Texas singer-songwriters--Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell--and they were all making records outta Nashville. So when I was a 20-year old in college, I loaded my Volkswagen full of everything I owned and went there to see if I couldn't do that."
He discovered he couldn't--not as a staff songwriter for the now-defunct MTM Music Company, anyway. Neither could another staffer, Bill Lloyd, a rock-and-roll transplant with dreams of label contracts and royalty checks. "I was really shitty at it," Foster recalls. "And for Bill--same thing. It didn't work for him either. So our boss [at MTM] said, 'Look, just go home and relax and write your songs, bring them to me, and I'll figure out where they go.' And it worked. Me and Bill wrote 'Since I Found You' together, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo turned around and cut it."
Then Marshall Crenshaw cut one of their co-written tunes, then Ricky Van Shelton. Soon after, the versatile duo landed its own contract with RCA, and Foster & Lloyd was born. Snagging nearly as much attention from college-radio crowds as from young-country fans, the two cut three harmony-laden albums; starting with the 1987 single "Crazy Over You," the pair learned the lay of Top 10 land. But like most creative partnerships, this one ran its course, and the two split to pursue solo careers: Lloyd would lean back toward his alt-rock roots, Foster toward his Texas singer-songwriter allegiance.
Del Rio, TX 1959 was the first baby of Foster's solo career, and the results were impressive: the kind of relentless, curving hooks that have you crooning along by every song's second chorus, old-school storytelling about barflies and gamblers and heartbroken travelers, slip-slide guitar and melting duets with the likes of Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter. This was new-school country with a sepia aura, a bigger heart, and a sharper ear. Foster was 10 times cooler than his Nashville Network competition, a self-taught music scholar with a beat-up acoustic and a taste for MTV's 120 Minutes. "Just Call Me Lonesome" charted with the graceful ease of a mid-career Beatles' track, an "In My Life" for the early-'90s contingent.
His 1995 follow-up didn't fare so well, and no wonder: Like Foster himself, Labor of Love didn't know what it wanted to be. Genuine C&W, which was the sphere that most embraced Foster's traditional-but-not aesthetic, or something edgier? In the struggle for identity, the songs came off deflated and blurry and passionless. And just in time for Foster's domestic tumult.
It all happened so suddenly: his divorce, his remarriage, his ex's remarriage, then the news that his son wouldn't be living across town anymore, but across the Atlantic Ocean. One year stretched into two into three. Forget a timely third record and a big national tour. Foster felt lucky even to make his way into venues like Poor David's. The only proof that he was still alive was when he'd hit the road for a week or two at a time, playing a few small shows in Texas or California or in and around Tennessee. The rest of his time he spent at home stewing and musing and slowly pulling himself from the emotional swamp.
"I finally realized," he says, "that through that series of events and struggles with faith and marriage and life view, you cannot go through life angry with your son's mom. No matter what. It's too destructive." He also realized that he couldn't stop writing songs forever, "unless I lost consciousness." By early last year, he was back at what he did best in the first place--creating music for himself.