“About two years ago, I got really sick with pneumonia and laryngitis,” he recalled. “I couldn’t speak at all, and was really going stir crazy. I even had to write notes to my wife and my kids. I had a song that I had recently finished called 'Sycamore Creek,' and I decided there was a short story in it. I wrote a note to my wife, and told her I was going to write a short story to go with the song so I don’t go crazy. She said ‘That’s good, because you are driving me crazy,'” he said with a smile.
“When I got through, she said ‘This is really good. You should continue to think about writing this way until you get your voice back.’ Then, about a year later, I met a woman named Shari Smith, who is an author in her own right. Unbeknownst to me, when I met her and started asking for advice, her publisher had told her if she found something she wanted to publish, they would find her an imprint. So, I had the first book out on the imprint Working Title Farm and everyone at Rivers’ Edge Media has done a great job at setting this whole thing up.”
When asked about the creative process behind the set and how it differed from simply putting together an album, he said that for him, it was all about pace. “I think the biggest thing is the time factor. I can write a song in an afternoon. I have heard of people who can bang out a short story in an afternoon, but I’m a little slower at it than that. It takes me a little more thought process because I’m new to doing things that way. The thing I learned about fiction that I didn’t know before is that you have to treat every single line and paragraph with the same respect that you would apply to writing the second verse of a song. Every aspect of it has to have that same piece of wonder and beauty to it.”
One track that transported Foster back in time was the nostalgic feel of “The Greatest Show On Earth,” of which he said, “That was a fun song and story to write. The song was really born out of growing up. My dad played guitar and sang. He sang good, but was a terrible guitar player. But, it didn't matter. He could play eight to ten chords, and so could his buddies, and on any given Saturday night, somebody brought the potato salad, somebody brought the barbecue, somebody brought the beer, but everybody brought an instrument. They would play music on the back porch all night long, and it didn’t matter if it was Hank Sr, Patsy Cline, or Frank Sinatra. If it had three chords, and the melody could be figured out, they would play it. That was my musical education. I told a buddy of mine ‘I don’t know if the show has ever gotten better than that. Those were the best I ever saw,’ and he said ‘That’s what we need to write today.'”
Foster evokes some of the spirit of Merle Haggard with the sense of weariness and social commentary on “All That I Require.”
“There is a lot of Merle in that. The finger picking style was from the Doc Watson records, but if you listen to 'Mama Tried,' there is a lot of that finger-picking style in there. Merle would have never shied away from something that he thought was really true. I don’t with that. I feel like the voices of extremism and fascism have been entering our nation’s discussion in the worst way. I don’t think I could have seen the recent events coming, as badly as it’s gotten, but it’s time to stand up and be counted and say that hate speech and extremism should really have no place in our democracy.”
One track that will no doubt be familiar to country music fans on For You To See The Stars is “Raining On Sunday,” which Foster co-wrote for his 1999 album See What You Want To See. Four years later, the song became a No. 1 hit for Keith Urban. He says the story behind the song is rather simple in its influence. “It was raining like cats and dogs on a Sunday. I was at Darrell Brown’s home, and we were supposed to write that afternoon. I don’t normally write on Sunday, but we were coming up on a deadline. I just burst out singing ‘Raining On Sunday,’ and he said that’s what we were going to write that day. I told him I was just joking, and he said ‘No, that’s a great title. That’s what we need.’ That’s how it came about. As I realized I was going to do a book along with the record, my wife suggested that I take an old chestnut of a song, and write a short story to go with it.”
Of course, Foster is no stranger to making an impact with his own music. From 1987-1990, he partnered with Bill Lloyd as one-half of the critically acclaimed duo Foster and Lloyd, and then in 1992, began a solo run with his debut disc Del Rio, TX 1959 – which has been cited as a major influence on many of his fellow artists, including Darius Rucker. He said he can’t believe how much attention that album still gets from fans and artists alike. “I’m astounded by it, and so grateful. It’s humbling. They call it popular music for a reason. It’s popular for a season and then it’s gone. For someone to remember it all these years later, and to claim it as such an influence on how and why they make music themselves is really humbling.” He says that making history with the album – which spawned four top 40 country hits – was something he wasn’t thinking about.
“At the time, we were just trying to make the best record we possibly could. I had come from Foster and Lloyd, and a lot of those songs were written toward the end of my tenure in that band. I just wanted to make a country record that was a statement and different from what I had been doing with Foster and Lloyd. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what we were doing, I just wanted to do something different. When that opportunity showed up, we took it. It was simply about trying to put together the best group of songs that I thought that would fit who I was, and the best storytelling I could come up with, and do it in classic country fashion.”
Today (Aug. 23) Billboard is premiering the song and the short story for Radney's new single "It Ain’t Done With Me.” He says the title is something he credits one of his collaborators with.
“I was writing with Shane Minor and Jay Clementi, and never had written with Shane before. I had this song title in my thought process. I started with a guitar lick, and said ‘I think this sounds like this, but we don’t have to use it.’ I think the title that I’ve been humming around is 'I’m Done With The Past.' Then, Shane said ‘But, it ain’t done with me.’ I started laughing and said ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we are going to write.’ The fun part came when after we wrote it I knew I wanted it to go on the record, but for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out the companion short story. There’s so many different ways you could go, and finally, I came up with the idea of him being a retired spy. The story is about a night in the life of a retired spy in New Orleans.”
For You To See The Stars will be released Sept. 15. Below, enjoy an exclusive excerpt from Radney Foster's book:
It Ain’t Done With Me
The hand off was made in front of God and everybody at the Carousel bar in the Monteleone hotel. Always hide things in plain sight.
It looked like bribery or drugs or both, but they were pros, trained. I know a dead drop when I see one, even sitting at a bar in New Orleans that spins around before you start drinking. You never let go of certain things, like the need to learn the room. It doesn’t take long, only a few seconds, but I am never comfortable ‘til I’ve completed the scan. I’ve been out of the business more than ten years but there are habits I doubt I’ll ever shed. They kept me alive.
I hadn’t been in that bar since the first time I came to the French Quarter but she wanted to meet there. Since I was just shy of thirty when I last saw her almost twenty-five years ago, I figured I should let her experience the place however she desired. It’s a NOLA tradition and was her first time here.
I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’ve tried to live my life so that they were minimized. The problem is life has a tendency throw situations at us for which there is no easy answer. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. No river, tide, nor baptism will wash you clean enough. Claire was one of those.
There are silly things we call regrets. I regret not losing my virginity to Mary Ellen Sinclaire on the night of our senior prom. She was ready and I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. Sharing that intimate moment with her would have been much less awkward than the reality I lived through on my first time. Those kinds of regrets are the ones you laugh at with old friends over bourbon on a screen porch in the cool of the evening.
Real regrets haunt you at sunset when the light reminds you of a tenderness you can never get back. They pull you back to an instant where all your choices were bad while you are standing in silence on a redfish flat. They wake you from a dead sleep. I have all the tools in the world to center the mind, care for my soul, surrender past mistakes to God and move on. Real regrets? They don’t give a damn. I regret killing two of the people I had to kill. I regret not being there when my father died. I regret leaving Paris.