Radney Foster is a songwriting veteran who has seen the many ups and downs of the hard music business life.
Early in his career, while in a duo with Bill Lloyd, the pair found success in the 1980s with nine songs climbing up the country music charts. They had a contract with RCA Records then and produced three albums, yet by 1990 they had broken up.
In the 1990s, Foster’s first solo album landed two more cuts in the Top Ten. But, by his third solo effort, other stars such as Keith Urban and the Dixie Chicks were stalking his own previously recorded compositions and running them even higher up the charts.
Songwriters still get paid, however, so other successful artists recording a Foster song was a lucrative deal. His cuts have also been covered by Luke Bryan, Emmylou Harris, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Hootie and the Blowfish, Los Lonely Boys, Shenandoah, George Benson, Dierks Bentley, Brooks and Dunn, The Mavericks, New Grass Revival, Guy Clark, Sweethearts of the Rodeo and many others.
As time continued on, Foster soon realized that he would have to find his own path in the recording industry once the big labels lost interest, and that has proven to be a good thing for the Americana genre. Foster set out to find his own level, free of corporate influence, and he continues to write amazing songs and record wonderful albums.
Recently, Foster also branched out into the literary field, writing a book filled with original short stories combined with new songs that go with those fresh tales. His latest book and accompanying CD is called “For You To See The Stars,” published by Working Title Farm, a company based in Western North Carolina.
When the Mountain Times talks with Foster, his excitement about performing at the upcoming MerleFest music festival is real as he was turned onto the music of the festival’s late patriarch Doc Watson at a very young age.
MerleFest is the High Country’s premier music festival happening from April 25 – 28 on the grounds of Wilkes Community College in nearby North Wilkesboro. The origins of this 14-stage, four-day event are based on the legacy of the local roots music artists Doc Watson and his son Merle Watson. Merle Watson died in 1985 in a tractor accident and Doc Watson died at 89 years of age in 2012.
Foster will perform twice at MerleFest on Thursday, April 25, and Friday, April 26. He will also be a judge of the prestigious Chris Austen Songwriting Contest at the festival.
The 2019 MerleFest lineup will feature Amos Lee, The Milk Carton Kids, the Steep Canyon Rangers, The Del McCoury Band, Wynonna Judd & the Big Noise, the Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Tyler Childers, Keb’ Mo’, Sam Bush, Molly Tuttle, The Black Lillies and many more acts.
Foster grew up in Del Rio, Texas, located across the Rio Grande River from Mexico. His life along the border as a young man in the 1960s inspires him to this day. Because of that history and the people that he grew to love on the south side of the river, it breaks his heart to see the border trouble that is happening now. As a result, last year Foster recorded a special Spanish language version of his hit song “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” in honor of the migrating families that being systematically split up at the border by authorities.
“My house was a mile from Mexico and I would cross the border all of the time,” Foster said. “My family would eat dinner in Mexico almost every Sunday. My grandmother had a standing table there at Ma Crosby’s Restaurant and Bar in Ciudad Acuna (which was founded during the Prohibition days of the 1920s). When I was in high school, my mother would send me across the bridge with money to Ciudad Acuna because you could get things much cheaper there. Or, there were things there that you couldn’t get in Del Rio, like a fresh pineapple.”
The music that Foster heard in those days still resonates with him all of these years later.
“It was just a different time then,” Foster said. “And, constantly being able to hear the music from Mexico absolutely influenced me. I am well-aware that some of the melody lines that I use have been borrowed from mariachi and huapango music. It was a real scene, and you always heard it. At the same time, I was also influenced by the country music that was coming out of Austin then as well.”
Another kind of influential music that Foster heard in Del Rio while growing up originated in this part of the world, and that was the sounds made by local High Country heroes Doc and Merle Watson.
“I’m so excited about coming to MerleFest that I can’t see straight,” Foster said. “I never got to play MerleFest until now and I am a huge fan of Doc and Merle Watson. The Doc and Merle Watson Live On Stage album on the Vanguard label meant everything to me. I got that record when I was about 16 years old. A friend of mine in Del Rio gave it to me as a gift. He was a really close family friend that was older than me and he had a National Steel resonator guitar that he played with fingerpicks. I was fascinated by that, and could not figure out how to play like that to save my life. But on my 16th birthday, he bought me that Doc and Merle Watson album.”
Hearing the voices and dual guitar playing of Doc and Merle Watson inspired the young Foster to step up his game.
“It made me determined to get a new guitar and I mowed every lawn I could to do it,” Foster said. “So, any of that finger picking that you hear on my new record, that was really born out of listening to that album and the tutelage of trying to figure out what Doc and Merle were doing. Because of that, playing at MerleFest is a real treat for me. It will be a real honor.”