The stories Radney Foster could tell — and does
Radney Foster is about to release a new album. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that; the Texas-born singer-songwriter has been making records for 30 years, beginning in 1987 as a member of Foster & Lloyd — a band that, as he puts its, “played country music as hard as the Clash played rock and roll” — and then in a solo career that started in 1992 with the trad-leaning album “Del Rio, TX 1959” and has seen him release 10 more since.
What is unusual about his new album is that it comes with a companion, a book of short stories, ranging across semi-autobiography, regionalist portrait, spy story, and techno-thriller, that marks his debut as a writer of fiction. The book and the album share a title: “For You to See the Stars.” Foster appears later this month at the first Amesbury Harvest Fair and Country Music Festival, where he won’t be reading from his new book but will be playing some of his new songs. He’s one of the featured artists in the three-day event’s lineup of country, Americana, and bluegrass acts. Travis Tritt, Charlie Daniels, Rodney Crowell, Craig Morgan, Rick Shea, Front Country, Molly Tuttle, and others will also perform.
We reached him in Atlanta, where he took a break from a songwriting session to talk about the project. Foster’s first stab at fiction and the particular shape it took were precipitated by the same circumstances. Essentially, he stumbled into the endeavor. He had written prose for other purposes — journaling and the occasional magazine article. But he hadn’t ever thought about writing fiction until he came down with a serious case of pneumonia a couple of years ago, which left him unable to talk to anyone for over a month.
“It was very frustrating, an existential crisis in a way for a singer,” he says. “So I wrote a note to my wife. I had a song that I had written called ‘Sycamore Creek,’ and I told her, I think there’s a short story in that song. I’m going to write it just to keep from going crazy. I wrote it, and with a lot of fear and trepidation handed it to her, and she said it’s really good. You should continue, even when your voice comes back. So I did.” Eventually, the idea occurred to him that he could put out a project with 10 or 12 songs and a story to go with each.
As with “Sycamore Creek,” some of the stories were inspired by songs. With others, he thought “I could write a song to go with that. That’s something I know how to do.”
He had no song to go with “The Night Demon,” a story that portrays a 9-year-old boy’s first exposure to early rock ’n’ roll via legendary DJ Wolfman Jack and border radio. “But Del Rio, Texas, where I grew up, is right across from where the largest of the border blasters was located. Wolfman Jack was there from 1959-1962. You’d hear him howling, and I’m a big Howlin’ Wolf fan, so I started thinking about his song ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ and I thought, how do I write a Radney Foster version of that song?” Out of that inspiration came a song to accompany the story, the Wolf(man)-channeling “Howlin’.”
It was easier to write the song if the story came first than the other way around, Foster observes with a laugh. And he notes that when the song came first, the story couldn’t just be a retelling, or it would be pretty boring. Further, what happened in the song might be just a small part of what happened in the story. He points to “Raining on Sunday” (a song that he had written and first recorded years ago) and its companion piece, “Isabel”: the song’s image of milagros on doorways, which inspired the story, is “a page-and-a-half of an 8,000-word story about a guy who has an early midlife crisis and decides to fly-fish his way out of it.”
While the book and album are presented as a pair, each stands on its own. He notes that the hard part is that “you still have to make a record that is congruent as a collection.” He has always believed that “an album should be more than a bunch of songs thrown together, that there ought to be a thought process to the collection if you’re really trying to express yourself as an artist.”
Similarly with fiction: “To me, the point is to bring explanation to, purpose to, what we can’t express through nonfiction. That’s what the best of them do; if I’m going to do it, I’m going to emulate those guys.”
At Amesbury Harvest Fair and Country Music Festival, Landry Stadium, Amesbury, Sept. 22-24. Festival tickets $59-$130, 800-514-3849, www.amesburymusicfest.com