Radney Foster’s Everything I Should Have Said elegantly bookends personal satisfaction won and lost. Moments between spotlight a veteran songwriter seamlessly shaping his vision.
“Radney’s brilliant with language,” frequent collaborator Darden Smith says. “He understands country song form and knows how to tell a story really well. His grasp and the ability to really be clear in the language of the song really impress me.”
Visiting with CMT Edge, Foster explains his tricky relationship with the muse, who is capable of wrecking hearts as well as dinner plans.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Foster: I had a ton of songs to weed through. I think hiring my friend Justin Tocket to produce might’ve been the wisest decision I made. He had moved to Louisiana to head up a studio that I’d worked in before with Randy Rogers. He said, “I think you ought to think about coming down here where there’s bad cell reception and it’s like everything stops for three or four days.” That really infused the whole record with a rootsiness and swampiness.
Tell the story behind writing “Whose Heart You Wreck.”
Well, this is gonna sound stupidly modern, but I listened to a TED Talk, and it was about creativity. The woman quoted a story from Tom Waits I’d heard before. Like myself, he believes that inspiration doesn’t completely come from within you. It comes from God and the universe, and you just happen to be the person with the pen at the right place and time. For me, honing my craft as a writer is what I do in order to be ready for when inspiration arrives.
Anyway, it was a funny story Waits was telling. He was driving on the freeway in 60 miles-an-hour bumper-to-bumper L.A. traffic. He has nothing to write with and nothing to record with, and he’s gonna get killed if he tries to get off the freeway when he gets this idea. … He looks up at heaven and says, “Really? Now? Can’t you see I’m busy here? If this thing’s so important to get out into the universe, go bug Leonard Cohen. He’s really good, and he lives in an apartment in New York. I’m pretty sure he’s not busy right now.” (laughs)
How exactly did that inspire the song?
That got me to thinking about what I think the muse is like. She still wakes me up at 2 in the morning. She’s like a drunk mistress. She shows up when you least expect it and never sticks around. She sleeps with my friends, and I have issues with that because I’m a jealous kind of guy. “Why couldn’t she have brought that Bruce Springsteen song to me? Why did he get to get it?” (laughs)
Does writing become easier or more difficult over time?
Both. It’s certainly easier to write songs. I know the process. If somebody said, “I need a song in half an hour,” I could write a song, but there’s no telling whether it’d be worth a damn. I think what becomes more difficult is there are only so many subject matters in this world.
How to tell that uniquely? That’s the challenge, as well as how not to repeat yourself, especially in a genre like country songwriting where there’s no way not to repeat yourself. As much as I like to think I can write anything, I’m never gonna escape the fact that where I was born was Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
What do you draw from Townes as a writer?
He wrote such visceral poetry, like that song “Marie.” It’s about the homeless woman that’s pregnant. It’s hard on me. He would take a storyline and add a visual element that you weren’t really sure was adding to the story. By the time you get to the end, though, you realize how brilliantly the visual elements helped tell the story outside of any conversational line. Townes always had a conversational piece, and then he’d have an image. The image told the story as much as any conversational part.
Like Townes, you’ve said you’re always trying to find a little piece of truth.
This record’s a good example. In “California,” the story’s made up, but it was born out of a real conversation with [my wife] Cindy. She was raised in the Bay Area, and we were talking about her mom and dad. Her dad had been in occupied Japan and got off the boat after World War II, and he said, “I ain’t going back to the farm in Pennsylvania. I’m staying right here.” Her mom escaped the East Coast, too.
Cindy said, “Everybody comes to California to start over with a new life.” I said, “Excuse me, honey, I have to go write something down. Finish your glass of wine, and we’ll have dinner in a little bit.” (laughs)
A songwriter’s spouse has to be pretty understanding with dinner plans.
Oh, yeah! (laughs) Cindy has been an incredibly understanding human being. She knows that we’re gonna be late for our reservation because something in her husband just showed up and he’s at least gonna spend 10-15 minutes getting the kernel if not canceling the whole evening.
Yet that’s also what pays the bills. It’s a double-edged sword, but it interrupts life a lot. I think I’m better communicating that now than I was in my first marriage. That’s why my first marriage didn’t last. I don’t think you get over things until you stop making a list of everything they did to you and start making a list of what you are responsible for.
Ever wish you worked a job where this muse character didn’t bother you?
I think I’d still be bothered by the muse character. I know several guys who were amateur songwriters and had a finger in the pie, but they practiced law for 25 years. They got to be 50 and made enough money and said, “You know what? I’m just not gonna do that anymore. I’m gonna move to Nashville and do nothing but write songs. I’m gonna follow that muse and quit the day-to-day work.”
I think if I had gone to law school and taken up my father’s law practice in Del Rio, Texas, I’d be the guy playing in the bands on weekends and writing little songs because they woke me up at night. I don’t know how to stop it.