The Story Behind New Country Music Hall Of Famer Fred Foster

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis and Fred Foster photographed on March 29, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn., after it was announced they will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The producer and record exec was key in the careers of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson.

After the Country Music Hall of Fame announced its 2016 class, the two artists among the 2016 inductees — Randy Travis and Charlie Daniels — received the most press.

The other, Fred Foster, might be unknown to the casual fan. But he was an important figure in the development of Nashville as a recording center — the founder of Monument Records and an unwavering believer in singer-songwriters.

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Through much of its history, professional songwriters have had some clout in Music City, writing material for artists who were tied up in endless tours and unable to focus daily on the craft of writing. But Foster leaned toward the artist as both creator and interpreter. Kris Kristofferson’s storied career began on Monument, Foster signed Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson prior to their hit-making years, and he made a ton of ruckus with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison. Monument was also an incubator for Larry Gatlin, Billy Joe Shaver and Tony Joe White.

“If your artist can write, you don’t have to go out and break your back searching for a hit,” reasons Foster today. “Plus, I also wanted someone that was readily identifiable, that didn’t sound like anybody else. If you’ll notice, all those people, you know them immediately.”

Foster actually founded Monument in Baltimore in 1958. New York was the closest recording hub, though he quickly decided Nashville was a better place to do business. It didn’t hurt that his first Tennessee session, Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Move On,” hit the top five on both Hot Country Songs and the Billboard Hot 100.

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“The union up there [in New York] gave me hassles,” says Foster. “Then I came down here, and everything was just so friendly and so family-like, you know. I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’ ”

Monument Studios was first headquartered at a downtown studio previously owned by Sun founder Sam Phillips. Foster eventually housed it on 16th Avenue in a building that had previously been a Presbyterian church and, later, a funeral home.

“The church was built out of brick, handmade,” notes Foster. “The walls were 2 feet thick — some of them were 3 [feet] in the basement level, so the sound was fantastic.”

It was good enough that other labels sought to work at Monument on occasion. Tom T. Hall, Narvel Felts and Jerry Lee Lewis all crafted hits for the competition in the building, which was also the site of Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

The place is still in use — Zac Brown has retooled it as the Southern Ground Studio, hosting sessions for the likes of A Thousand Horses, Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley, who booked it to record his current No. 1 single, “Different for Girls.”

Music Row owes part of its legacy to Foster, though the average Joe probably won’t give it much thought — except when they spot his bronze plaque hanging alongside the other inductees’ in the Hall of Fame’s Rotunda. It will be installed after this fall’s official medallion ceremony, an event that may be as unscripted for Foster as the career he staked out.

“Things that are too carefully planned don’t go well,” he reasons. “So let it happen. I’m not writing any speech.”