Fred Foster, Legendary Producer of Willie Nelson & Dolly Parton, Dies at 87

Fred Foster
Courtesy Photo

Fred Foster

Fred Foster, longtime producer and Country Music Hall of Fame member, died in his sleep Feb. 20 following a short illness. He was 87.

The North Carolina native founded Monument Records in 1958 and was at the helm of many iconic country records, including seminal albums from Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Ray Stevens and Jeannie Seely. He also founded Combine Music, which published Kristofferson’s "Me and Bobby McGee" (co-written with Foster) and "Help Me Make It Through the Night," Orbison’s "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" and Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie."

Foster had a hand in producing many hits by Orbison in the 1960s, including “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Only the Lonely” and “Crying,” as well as Parton and Jimmy Dean’s first singles. He also helmed Kristofferson’s debut album, the 2007 Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price album Last of the Breed, as well as Price’s final album, 2014’s Beauty Is. His last project was Dawn Landes’ 2018 album, Meet Me at the River.

"I am heartbroken that my friend Fred Foster has passed on,” Parton says in a statement provided to Billboard.  “Fred was one of the very first people to believe in me and gave me chances no one else would or could. We've stayed friends through the years, and I will miss him. I will always love him."

Foster was born in Rutherford County, N.C., on July 26, 1931. The youngest of eight children, his music roots ran deep, spurred on by his father, who was a music lover and a harmonica player. At 18, Foster left his family farm for Washington, D.C., where he began his work in the record industry. He started a pop division for J&F Distributors and his first task was to work on Dean’s first recording “Bumming Around.” He also worked with George Hamilton IV during his time at ABC-Paramount, as well as Mercury Records before he formed his own label.

Foster was particularly successful with singer/songwriters, including Parton, Nelson, Kristofferson, White, Larry Gatlin and Billy Joe Shaver. That was intentional, he told Billboard ahead of his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

“If your artist can write, you don’t have to go out and break your back searching for a hit,” reasoned Foster. “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 founded Monument Records in Baltimore. He had a few recording sessions in New York before eventually moving to Nashville, where he said, “Everything was just so friendly and so family-like. I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’”

The label’s first Music City location, the Fred Foster Sound Studio, was at a downtown studio previously owned by Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips. After the building was torn down in the early '70s, Foster moved to 16th Avenue in a building that was formerly a Presbyterian church and, later, a funeral home. The location was rumored to be haunted, although Foster said he didn’t “believe in those things.”

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

Foster’s former studio is currently in use as Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Nashville, where acts including A Thousand Horses, Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley have recorded.

Foster was a member of the North Carolina Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. A memorial service will be planned in March with additional details announced in the coming days.