Critics' Picks

Radney Foster

If there's one artist who should serve as an example of how to pursue a career in country music, it's Radney Foster. Note that I said should, because the example Foster provides may not be the quickest path to fame and fortune, but it is a model of artistic integrity and quality. On top of that, Foster has managed to do it all while working within the system in Nastyville, Tennessee, not only in one career, but two--first as one half of the 1980s duo Foster & Lloyd, and in the 1990s as a solo country artist.

And he only gets better: Last year, Foster released See What You Want To See, a beautiful yet brutally honest look at relationships and the way they can crumble. The album is where all the promise Foster has displayed for almost 15 years finally came together in stunning synchronicity. It doesn't exactly forsake his country roots--you can take this Del Rio boy out of Texas, but you can't take the Texas out of Foster--but it does bring his rock and pop influences to the forefront. As a result, he's moved into a new home on Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) radio, and he's finally gaining a share of the pop audience that may have missed Foster's previous releases in the country realm. Finally, Foster is now where his talent should operate, with a record that's as valid and appealing as anything by such other Triple A darlings as Elliott Smith and Counting Crows.

He does have all the goods. Foster's voice is as warm as any of the balmy Texas spring days we are now enjoying, and his songs are as wise as a best friend's advice. He provided the sweetness in Foster & Lloyd, who mixed '50s-style Everly Brothers harmonies with an early-'70s country-rock consciousness and smart pop savvy. At a time when Steve Earle was trying to bring the grit back to country and Lyle Lovett was attempting to inject the genre with some wit, Foster & Lloyd were the flip side of the sadly failed movement to retake country at that time. They never eschewed commercialism but rather pursued it in a fashion that assumed the audience might have some intelligence, and an appetite for music that was nutritious and hearty. If things had gone differently in the country music business, Foster & Lloyd might have been icons rather than a bright hope that faded under the weight of the careerist greed that overtook commercial country.

When Foster re-emerged as a solo artist on Arista Nashville after the duo's break-up, he continued to try to play the game, albeit skillfully and without selling his soul. His work during that time (1992's Del Rio, Texas, 1959 and 1995's Labor of Love) was distinguished when compared with all the other mundane crud out there littering the country charts, yet it was merely good considering what he was capable of. When he finally avoided all occupational hazards to make an album that embodied the music in his heart (See What You Want To See), the result revealed the considerable talents of a rootsy pop-rocker that had been hidden below the surface as he tried to make the music industry work for his career, rather than simply focusing on making the music work for him. And in doing the latter, he's opened up whole new vistas for his pursuits and released a disc that feels, for the first time, like the real Radney Foster.

This latest trek through Texas finds him backed by The Thompson Brothers, a young country-rock band whose debut album (1998's Blame It On The Dog, produced by Foster's former musical partner Bill Lloyd) sounds much like--surprise--Foster & Lloyd. But rather than reminding the audience of past glories, the tour gives us the chance to hear an artist finally settle into the sweetest and smartest groove a musical talent can find--artistic success. Long may he run down the new highway he's traveling. Radney Foster performs May 18 at Poor David's Pub.

Rob Patterson

 
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