Country Singer Radney Foster Looks to Fascists of the Past to Explain Trump's Popularity

Marshall Foster
Radney Foster

Radney Foster has carved out a remarkable career since breaking out as a member of Foster & Lloyd nearly three decades ago -- scoring hits as a duo, a solo act, and a songwriter for the likes of Keith Urban and Sara Evans. Many of these have been affecting love songs, but he was motivated by different concerns on his latest release: "All That I Require" takes aim at "fascist and intolerant speech in the political system," which has been a fixture in the news cycle throughout election season. Foster chooses not reference current political events, drawing instead on historical lessons from previous authoritarian rulers.  

"Mussolini called immigrants a grease stain on Europe," the singer/songwriter points out on the phone from the road. "It's not being said quite that way now, but just change the religion, and all of a sudden, you start connecting the dots. One of the thing's that's classic fascism is you set someone up as evil just so you can knock them down. You see that on either side of the aisle right now. It's really dangerous to democracy."

Foster spoke with Billboard about the frustrations that lead to "All That I Require" and his fears for our democracy. 

How did the song come together?

I wrote it a month ago. I got a little pissed off, pardon my language, about what I think is the rise of fascist and intolerant speech in the political system. The song is about the cautionary tale of whatever happens when we succumb to anger. I got angry, but then I remember that my faith tells me Jesus wants me to love my neighbor as I want to be loved. So I gotta write this from that point of view.

I started asking myself, as a singer songwriter, what would Woody Guthrie do? I ended up doing a bunch of research — where's the origin of this [speech]? I started researching Stalin on the left and Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler on the right. It never ends well. It ends badly. It took Spain 60 years to get over Franco. 

I wrote ["All That I Require"] and sent it to another buddy of mine who will remain nameless, and I said, "should I put this out?" He said, "if you don't, I quit." We're a little independent record label; we can go, "Ok, let's just do it."

Do you feel like you've written political songs in the past?

I write plenty of love songs, plenty of story songs about cowboys. But every now and then, if you're not doing something that's really cutting to the bone and making people feel and think, then you're probably not doing it right. Woody Guthrie said it's the folksinger's job to make disturbed people feel comfortable and comfortable people disturbed. 

I've written songs in the past that have to do with social values, which affect our politics. There was a song on my last record called "Not In My House"; it's about hate speech. My daughter was in the fifth grade, and she came home from school and asked me what the word "slut" meant. Talk about me going, what in the world? This is a kid — a little kid. I was like, "where did you hear this?" She said, "someone used this at school." I said, "Honey, all that's ever used for is to make a woman feel small." I wrote a song about that. I've had things like that, and I had a gospel cut called "A Little Revival." That was covered by Sara Evans; she's a dear friend and a staunch Republican. She knows I'm a Democrat, but she loves that song. 

You didn't name any names on "All That I Require."

I know who I'm voting for, but I'm going to keep that to myself. I want people to think. I gotta take it out of current politics. Yes, it is about the election, but it's about bigger than that. As a nation, we're gonna have some soul searching to do. I'd like to see us remain a democracy.

I'll be completely honest: I hear the intolerance on both sides of the aisle, but there's no question that Mr. Trump is leading the pack. We live with the first amendment, and I'm a big proponent. But talk of not accepting the results of an election is a scary business. Having a religious test to get into the country? Scary business. I wrote it a month ago — think about the statements that have been made in the last month! 

Shouldn't elections be about the discussion of ideas? It's a frickin' circus. If you ask the average person what Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump's position is, they probably don't know. He said all this nasty crap about her; she's crooked. I'm not sure either one of those is a good description of who they are, though Mr. Trump does say a lot of nasty things. It's nothing but a soap opera. 

If I write something that's merely political from one perspective, I'm gonna bash this candidate or that candidate, then all it does is piss people off. But if I go back, and I go to the historical perspective, then whether you're on the right or the left, maybe you listen to it and ask yourself some questions. I've had so many people from both sides of the aisle come up to me after shows I've been playing — in Oklahoma and Texas — and say, "you have said everything that I have been wishing that I could express."

So you haven't felt any backlash?

Oh no, there's people who said "you've lost me as a fan forever." There's people who will get pissed off. I just went on social media and said, "this is how I wrote it, this is why I wrote it, I hope you'll reconsider this song on November 9th after all this mess is over and see if it's not something you think we really need to think about as a country." You're gonna lose some. The amazing thing was people would immediately have an answer without listening to the song. I would just say, "hey, go listen to the song — I don't think that's what it's about. Read what I said in the statement." Many came back and said, "you thought this out well. I still disagree with you, but you've done this with honor and dignity."

Do you have a theory as to why the language you discuss in the song is on the rise?

The polarization has been building for a long time. And there's a big segment of our society that has not recovered from the recession. They're hurting. That's when authoritarians come along, whenever things are going bad. In the 1930s, we had our own: Huey Long helped a whole lot of poor people down in Louisiana, but he wasn't a good guy. And he was a Democrat. It can happen on the right or the left; it ain't about that. 

Tip O'Neill was the speaker of the house under Ronald Reagan. He was about as left you could get — probably left of me, and from Massachusetts. But he sat down with Reagan every Friday and had a beer. And they got things done. It wasn't, "that's the devil incarnate," it was, "that's a proud American who vehemently disagrees with me, but when push comes to shove and we have to get things done, we can agree on this much." We have to get back to that. That's how democracy's run. 

You mentioned you did some historical research for this song — do you think historical memory has been slipping away lately?

Oh yeah. The cool thing is I've had a bunch of history teachers get in touch and say, "I played this for the social studies staff at our high school, and we're gonna interweave it with some history lessons and current politics at our school." That's cool — if it helps somebody at least remember that extremism on the right or the left ultimately leads to the death of democracy, then hallelujah. I didn't live through that, but my parents certainly did, and [I heard] those stories as a kid. My generation's not telling that story to our 20 year-olds. 

Do you have hope that the country will find the right course?

Very much so. But the only way anything's going to continue is if we ask ourselves hard questions about ourselves. Do I have hope? Yes, I do. My hope is that the song stands as a cautionary tale and never needs to be needed again.