Twenty years after releasing his first solo album, Radney Foster is a little grayer, a little wiser and, by his own evaluation, a better musician and songwriter.
Earlier this year, Foster, one of the most successful country acts to ever come out of Texas (both as a solo artist and as one half of country duo Foster and Lloyd), revisited his past by re-recording Del Rio TX, 1959, his first solo album which was released two decades ago and yielded four Top 40 country singles.
Many hardcore fans of the album, including Dixie Chick Martie McGuire, say it’s one of the few albums they’ve bought in their lives that they’ve actually worn out. Much to their chagrin, the record has been out of print for years, so Foster decided to do something about it.
“A couple years ago I started thinking, 'I have to figure something out for the 20th anniversary some way. Whether it’s re-recording it or whatever, what do I do to honor that?' I didn’t want to go in and sort of try to recreate lightening in a bottle, because every time I’ve ever seen anyone do that they just kind of lay there like a dead fish,” Foster explains.
“I decided I was gonna do an unplugged sort of thing and got Martie McGuire from the Dixie Chicks and Jon Randall Stewart, who is an amazing guitar player from the Dallas Forth Worth area originally, and all these other Austin musicians.”
"I didn’t want to go in and sort of try to recreate lightening in a bottle, because every time I’ve ever seen anyone do that they just kind of lay there like a dead fish.”
The album, Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome, which was recorded in three days in an Austin studio, is a stripped down version of the original with lower keys and slower tempos. Foster says essentially 90 percent of the record was recorded live, so there’s a looseness about it — “yet with remarkable precision.”
“Basically we sat in a circle — no headphones and no separation. We were all in the same room together playing it live right then and there, and it worked swimmingly.”
The new version of the record includes all 10 original tracks, plus a recently written bonus track titled "Me and John R." It was inspired by Foster’s late father, John Radney Foster, and Johnny Cash, and co-written by Jon Randall Stewart. Foster says that even though the perspective he has on some of the songs he wrote decades ago has changed, they still stand up for him.
“I think 'Closing Time' is a good example. My first wife and I were still together when I wrote that song, and I certainly never told her this, but I knew what it was like to want to avoid going home,” Foster explains. “And that’s what that was born out of — we were in the midst of kind of a stormy time. So certainly the experiences that I wrote them from are different, but some are the same too. I wrote 'Old Silver' about my grandfather’s passing, and I still remember that the same way. I still understand the pain.”
When Foster returned to the studio to re-record Del Rio TX, 1959, he had some idea of the treatment he wanted to apply to each song, but things didn’t always go according to plan.
“We sort of had things in our minds but then someone started playing something and it was like, ‘Oh, well scrap what I was thinking about. Martie’s got something going on there that’s a whole lot better than what I had thought through.'”
There were no rehearsals; Foster sent each musician copies of the original tracks and they learned their parts. On the first day of the three-day session, Foster says the group started with just himself and one player and gradually added instruments. On the second day, they recorded with the whole band, and on the last day, they stripped it back down again to about half the band.
“I’m more prolific than I was early in my career. I probably write twice as many songs these days as I did back then,” he explains. “I think I’m better at it. And I’m still in love with the storytelling aspect of songwriting. I’m a better guitar player than I was back then — I’m a better musician, and I think that’s changed things a lot too.”
I also asked him what it’s like to hear songs about deeply personal experiences sung by other artists.
“It is a two edged sword. I mean sometimes you’re like, ‘Woohoo! There’s a lot of stuff we can pay for now,” he says with a laugh. “’You know that car that has 130 thousand miles on it, we can get a new one!’ I mean there is that. And if anyone tells you they don’t think about that — they’re lying. But it is almost an out of body experience to hear someone [perform] something that was really personal. But the cool thing is. . .when you hear somebody do something and they make it their own.”
Between being a father and a husband, songwriting, recording, touring and producing, Radney Foster, a self-professed workaholic, keeps himself busy. For the next nine months or so, Foster plans to tour in support of the new version of Del Rio TX, 1959, continue writing for his next project of new material and help develop several up and coming acts. Foster and Lloyd fans fear not: Foster also says he has plans to continue writing with Bill Lloyd, and it's probable that they will play some gigs together in the near future.
Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome hits shelves on August 14. Foster is giving a preview at an in store performance at Waterloo Records in Austin on August 1. He’s playing the Whitewater Amphitheatre in New Braunfels on August 2 and will grace the stage at Antone’s on August 29.