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.
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.
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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.
Now, each time the subject turns to his new record and his upcoming tour, he brightens and laughs easily. This is the sort of resurrection no one can predict, especially when they're living through it. "I knew I'd make a living doing music--producing, writing songs." He signals toward the Gypsy Tea Room stage, toward his band as they finish sound-checking. "But I didn't know I was gonna get a chance to do this again.