Legendary artist Radney Foster released his newest project– a CD/book combo titled For You To See The Stars– on September 15th. The collection of short stories, published via Working Title Farm, is Foster’s very first print publication. The record (Devil’s River Records) marks Foster’s eleventh studio album and features nine new songs, along with a special re-recording of his top single, “Raining on Sunday.”
While it’s evident that Texas has always been an inspiration for his music, in For You To See The Stars, Foster explores various landscapes, both physical and emotional, from the story of a retired spy in New Orleans, to the tale of a Dallas lawyer wandering the Rocky Mountains in search of redemption, to a post apocalyptic parable of a world in endless war.
The beauty of this CD/book combo lives within Foster’s extensive imagery, which not only further expands the meaning behind Foster’s songs, but gives the reader a look at the thought process behind his songwriting. “For me, the goal of writing is always to touch that one person so much that they wonder how I got a peek into their living room–how I understood exactly what they felt. More than just rhyming or having a pretty melody, I try to express a part of the human condition that can make someone want to laugh, cry, make love, or all of the above.”
Foster has written eight number one hit singles, including his own “Nobody Wins,” and “Crazy Over You” with duo Foster & Lloyd. His discography contains countless cuts by artists ranging anywhere from country (Keith Urban, The Dixie Chicks, Luke Bryan, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) to contemporary (Marc Broussard, Hootie & The Blowfish, Kenny Loggins, Los Lonely Boys).
For You To See The Stars is Foster at his classic storytelling best, both as a seasoned singer/songwriter and a soulful writer of prose. Although both components stand alone as separate pieces of art– they are meant to be enjoyed together for a reason. When coupled, the book and CD give fans a deeper insight into the subconscious of Foster’s storytelling. Journalist Peter Cooper puts it best, “Radney Foster writes with uncommon depth of emotion, humor, empathy, and clarity. I’m going to ask him how he does it, and if he tells me I’ll let you in on his secret. Until then, it’s best that we read, wonder, and revel.”
Radney took time to talk to A Soulful Sound about For You To See The Stars.
Thank you Radney for the opportunity to ask a few questions about For You To See The Stars.
Your fans already know that you are a gifted storyteller through your songs and performances. Yours songs move us, comfort us and perhaps change us. Listeners really can’t ask for more than that, and yet For You To See The Stars gives just that… more. A lot more.
ASoulfulSound: When I first received the book and CD, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Read the stories first or listen to the CD… so I did it chapter then song. How do you recommended?
RF: Both.. The great thing about songs is the people have the ability to put themselves in the story. It’s such a short narrative. And you really want that. My favorite comment from someone who’s a fan is “my gosh, how did you know what I was thinking? “How did you get in my living room?” And my answer is always of course, “I didn’t, I just know who I am and how I would feel, even if I made the situation up. I can’t help but put a piece of myself in it.” Short fiction has to stand on it’s on, I mean it just does. A song is a brief snapshot. It’s not as brief (the story) you can stretch it out. Certainly with one of them — Sycamore Creek is really more of a novella, than a short story. I mean its 12,000 words, anything over 10,000 that’s pretty much a novella.
ASoulfulSound: We’ll revisit Sycamore Creek, that’s one of my favorites. I wanted to ask, did the songs inspire the stories or the stories the songs?
RF: It came both ways. The vast majority I had written the song first. Sycamore Creek was my first stab at short fiction – my first stab at any kind of fiction. I’d had written some journalistic stuff for Guitar Player and Acoustic Guitar Magazine — “one offs” where they were looking for songwriters to write about songwriting. I use a bunch of alternate tunings and Acoustic Guitar Magazine asked me to do a whole feature on that… so I’ve done that. But that (Sycamore Creek) was certainly my foray into writing any kind of fiction at all, but that led me to just keep doing it. That story in the forward is really true, I got really sick — it was such an existential crisis — I had to do something to keep being able to be a storyteller without a voice. I couldn’t sing for three months, which was very scary. So I figured out another way to tell stories. I’m really thankful for it. Sometimes I think adversity brings us gifts we don’t see or understand. I’m not sure I would have gotten here had it not been for that adversity. On that note, I really do think the stories definitely have to live their own story that you can enjoy without ever having heard the songs at all.
ASoulfulSound: They both really do stand on their own completely, separately, don’t they?
RF: Yea, they should. If you told me here read this short story or novel and go write a song about it.. As a matter of fact, that is how I got to my publisher because she has a phenomenal art, music and literary piece that travels the country called Trio. She had asked me to read a book and write a song inspired by it. I just did my second one for the new show that’s coming up. I wrote a song for Wiley Cash’s new book called The Last Ballad about Ella May Wiggins, who was a union organizer and a very poor woman who worked in the mills in North Carolina and was murdered. She was also a songwriter who Woody Guthrie called one of the greatest American songwriters ever, so it was cool to do that.
ASoulfulSound: Can you describe how the process of writing songs and stories differ and how you approach each?
RF: They’re very different for me. Writing a song is so wrapped around the melody and the terseness of the lyric. You have to try to impart as much information as you possibly can in as few words as possible. There is part of that that applies to writing fiction. I always know that usually the tighter the paragraph, the prettier. But at the same time you have to trust your reader when you’re writing fiction and believe that they will follow you on the journey. If I spend two and a half pages on the inner thoughts of the character I have to write it well enough that it keeps moving the story forward but trust that the reader will still follow me through that character’s mind.
ASoulfulSound: It’s a little longer than a two and a half minute song, isn’t it?
RF: Yes, exactly. And it takes me longer. There are songs that I labored over on this record that I might have spent a week or two writing, but the true writing time was me mulling it over in my mind and going “oh I got a half an hour and I think I’ve got this thing figured out on the second verse”, then I’d go to the studio and do the piecemeal and then there’s For You To See The Stars which was written in an afternoon. Writing the short story For You To See The Stars was a couple weeks’ worth of writing two or three hours a day. Then another week re-writing it before I sent what I thought was something worthwhile to my editor…. And then of course, the editing process…it’s just such a longer form of hours with a pen in your hand , so to speak.
ASoulfulSound: The book certainly addresses a wide range of human emotions, serious topics like homelessness, illness, regret, reflection, redemption, love, sex, death, etc. There’s a quote in the book: “half of writing songs is making shit up, the other half is telling the truth” “If you are willing to share that innermost part – fear, love, a broken heart, you might end up with a song someone gives a damn about”
Can you pick a chapter and tell about the inspiration – I’m especially wondering about Belmont & 6th.. wondering if that was inspired at all by your project Songwriting with Soldiers.
RF: Very much so. Belmont & 6th is a really good one to focus on. It’s so much born out of personal experience both from writing with soldiers and learning their stories and then telling their stories and seeing the redemption –and yes, redemption is a good word — but just the catharsis that comes to them by writing a piece of art with them and what that really does for and means to their lives. It’s extraordinary and the coolest ways that I get to give back. I try to do as many of them as I possibly can. They do eight to ten retreats a year.. I do one or two but and I am always so unbelievably grateful that I get the opportunity to do them. So certainly that informed Belmont and 6th both as a song and as a piece of short fiction.
True to life there’s a very good homeless newspaper called The Contributor here in Nashville. The thought process is that these guys rather than begging for money on the street or trying to sell something someone doesn’t really need, or washing windows, or any other kinds of those things, they get a job. They can go sell those newspapers so when they go into a potential employer, they can say no I’m not unemployed, I work in sales for a newspaper. That’s a huge step up for them. So I have bought those things from lots of guys from lots of street corners. But there was one who I knew was a vet, both by his demeanor and by the way he was dressed. I never learned his name but he was always on my way to drop my kids at school. I would give him a buck or two whenever there was a new edition out. Then one day he wasn’t there. I have no idea what happened. And I can’t. So it haunted me for quite some time because I knew it could be for very good reasons or very bad reasons. That was thus the first line in that story and the reasoning for making that line .. when the light turns green the relationship is over. Because that’s the truth of it. I thought well, that’s a big gun. At first I thought that line needed to go somewhere .. then I realized that it needs to go right at the stinking front of it… hit them in the head with a hammer.
ASoulfulSound: I absolutely love Rock and Roll Slow Dance and Slow Dance the story. I’m not ashamed to admit to crying a few times during this book. These stories are so layered and beautifully written. I thought of the book as a different type of “coming of age” book. Was Slow Dance inspired by people you know?
RF: Some. I pulled amalgamations of things. I also knew what it was like. My father had Parkinson’s Disease before he passed away and a battle with cancer. There was a long process of caring for him. I think that was in the forefront of my mind. The song came first. I wrote the song with my friend Will Kimbrough, who produced the record. He’s a great singer-songwriter and a masterful guitar player that worked on this with me. I knew I wanted that song to go on the record but for the longest time I already had one song that was dealing with teenagers growing up and I didn’t want to repeat myself. I thought what’s the rest of the story? The reality of love is.. you will get your heartbroken. Period. If you stay married for 60 some odd years and the love of your life passes from this world to the next, it’s going to break your heart. That is the dark side but I believe it’s worth it. So I thought, let’s go with that. Having those two love stories if you will, one being platonic between two men who grew up together and the love between Will and Julia gave me the opportunity for a really good twist at the end of the story.
ASoulfulsound: It was beautifully done. I did not see it coming.
RF: That’s awesome because I did an interview with the Boston Globe and he said that was his favorite because he didn’t see it coming. Even though I left plenty of clues, purposely. He did exactlt what I hoped he would and said he went back to re-read the whole damn thing finding all the clues that were there.
ASoulfulsound: When reading some of these stories and listening to your music, I’ve been listening for a long time — I tend to think that most things are autobiographical… I realize some of these stories can’t be…
RF: Yea, I’m not a retired spy. (laughs)
ASoulfulsound: How comfortable are you say with Sycamore Creek, you’re a male writing such an exquisite sexual scene that gave this northern girl the vapas…
RF: Gave the girl the vapas (laughs). I just thought about what it was like to be a teenager in the 70s. Without any spoilers, that sex scene is wrapped in the entire thought process of redemption. That is the the very center of this entire book and in particular in the center of that song and that story. Maggie knows that she has redemption — trusts it and leans into it and she accepts that in her life. Bobby Dean struggles with redemption and is unsure of it for possibly the rest of his existence. Darryl is denied redemption by society. That’s the story.
I felt that the sex scene had to really be how awkward it is when you’re first intimate with someone that way. How the scene evolves makes it a more redemptive moment.
ASoulfulsound: Let’s lighten things up just a little. Can we talk Wolfman Jack? Let me tell you… when I read that story I was “Howlin” happy! This 70’s girl loved him and watched The Midnight Special every Friday night. That chapter made me so happy and nostalgic. So thank you!
RF: Thank you, you’re very welcome. That is one of the ones where the story was written first and I had to write the song.
ASoulfulSound: Well the song is just great and I needed that chapter. A bit of joy and light with all the dark.
RF: Yea, I didn’t think I was writing all that dark until I got them all together and it’s like, damn there’s a whole lotta darkness in this book. I really feel like Bridge Club is a happy chapter even though it touches on a poignant time, I think that’s about a little boy finding redemption through family through the love and assurance of his mama and also through his father and music.
ASoulfulSound: Let’s end of a fun note. Throughout the book, your love for Texas, bourbon and food are a common thread. If one were to take a literary pilgrimage based on these stories , where should they start and what should they eat first.
RF: You should start by going to any good Mexican restaurant where you’re the only one in the room who speaks English and ask if they make posole.
ASoulfulSound: What’s posole?
RF: It is a hominy and pork stew. And it is delicious.
That would be the first place. If you’re going to travel. Hell, do the bourbon trail. You’ll need a driver. (laughs) You need two to three days to do it because at some point your tongue gets so numb that you can’t really taste anything.
ASoulfulSound: Do you have a favorite bourbon?
RF: I do have a favorite My favorite everyday manufactured bourbon is Woodford’s Reserve.
ASoulfulSound: You mention that one in the book.
RF: I mention it in one of the stories.. The spy one. John drinks bourbon.
Certainly if you’re going to New Orleans have a Sazerac cocktail. It’s a good one. There’s no better place to eat oysters on the half shell then Felix’s Oyster House. My favorite traditional New Orleans haunt is Galatoire’s, but you’ll need to make a reservation way ahead of time. There’s so many great new restaurants in New Orleans. I ate at a tiny Italian place called Red Gravy. Really fabulous. There’s a great, great, restaurant called Herbsaint. Really great. I’m going to make one more recommendation — if you want to eat true Mexico meets TexMex you need to go to my favorite haunt in Del Rio. Memo’s. Its in the old part of town. Also, go to west Texas and order pork tamales.
ASoulfulSound: That actually sounds like the exact place to start.
RF: It is the place to start.
ASoulfulSound: Radney, thank you again so much. Good luck with For You To See The Stars.