Courtesy – Juli Thanki – Engine 145
“I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for morphine,” laughs Radney Foster. In late April, he battled a painful bout of shingles so severe that it forced him to cut his Scotland tour short and cancel what would have been his first appearance at Stagecoach. The illness and show cancellations were a physical and emotional blow for the 54-year-old singer-songwriter, but when talking about his new album, Everything I Should Have Said (his first solo record of new material in five years), he perks right up.
“I tend to write 40 to 50 songs a year, so I had lots of material to weed through for this album,” Foster explains. To help narrow down those couple hundred songs into a manageable bunch, he called upon friend and producer Justin Tocket. “Justin is somebody I really trust, and he didn’t have any emotional ties to the songs, so I let him be brutal and honest: he’d tell me ‘This song is better than that one,” or ‘While this is a great song, maybe a hit song for somebody else, it tells me nothing about you, Radney Foster.’ So we tried to make the album as meaningful and personal as we possibly could.”
To record Everything I Should Have Said, Foster rounded up musicians he’s worked with over his past 20-some in music and traveled to Dockside Studios, located in an old Lafayette, Louisiana whorehouse that’s been privy to recording sessions by everyone from soul queen Irma Thomas to indie rockers Arcade Fire. Foster himself had recorded the Randy Rogers Band there a decade earlier. “It’s a place where there are no wives, no girlfriends, no bars, and no cellphone service. Everything stops and you just make music,” says Foster, comparing the experience to summer camp, albeit one with guitars and bourbon instead of canoes and s’mores.
“There’s a camaraderie that gets built there, and when the clock goes off, you have freedom to experiment,” he explains. “There’s nothing to do but eat Cajun food and play music. So that’s what we did.”
The result is an album that crackles with the energy of a live show, right down to a few mistakes that ended up making the final cut. “On the opening lick of ‘Hard Light of Day,’ I’m playing an electric guitar that’s out of tune. After the first pass, I wanted to go back and redo it, but Justin and the guys came over the talkback and said ‘Noooo!’” I tried to tell them it was out of tune, but they were like, ‘It’s cool the way it’s out of tune – like Neil Young!’ They won that decision,” Foster laughs.
Everything I Should Have Said contains some of the most personal songs of Foster’s career, from “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse),” a meditation on the cruel mistress of creativity, to “Not in My House,” which is the result of an eye-opening conversation he had with his 11-year-old daughter.
“She came home from school one day and, while we were in the kitchen, very nonchalantly turned to me and says, ‘Daddy, what does the word ‘slut’ mean?’ Needless to say, I swallowed real hard and said, ‘Where did you hear that?’ And she told me, ‘One of the girls at school said it and I don’t know what it means. I think it’s a bad word.’”
“I said, ‘Baby, it is a bad word. The only reason that it ever gets used is to put somebody down and make them feel small. It’s about a woman’s sexuality – and your mother can explain a little more about that – but you need to know it’s not a good word to use, because all it does is make people feel bad.’”
It’s serious talk for a fifth grader, but the conversation may have weighed more heavily on Foster. “That night I went out into my backyard with a bourbon in my hand and wept,” he confesses. “It really, really ate at me.”
Shortly thereafter, Foster met with longtime friend Allen Shamblin for their first songwriting session and relayed that experience. Shamblin’s reply: “I know the feeling, and that’s what we’re going to write about.”
For the powerful “Not in My House,” the pair widened the scope of their song to condemn racist and homophobic slurs as well, writing that, “I’m gonna sing for the souls who get kicked around / Words aren’t a weapon just to put you down.”
“Being Southern white boys in our 50s, we saw and heard a lot that younger generations haven’t,” Foster says. “We just wrote about the hate speech we know and how none of it is ever a good thing. It just ain’t.”
Foster is extremely proud of the song, and he’s got reason to be: the first time he performed it, he received a standing ovation, and several audience members sought him out after the show to tell him what the song meant to them. “I don’t know that it’ll change anybody’s mind,” Foster shrugs. “But I felt like it was something I had to say.”
The album’s other stunning track may not be tied to Foster’s family life, but it’s no less close to his heart. He’s spent the last several years participating in SongwritingWith: Soldiers, a nonprofit organization that pairs wounded service members (both active duty and retired) with professional songwriters to write music based on their experiences in the military. “The beautiful thing about it is that I get to watch those guys’ lives light up. I get emails from the vets months, years later, telling me about how that experience helped put them on a better path as they tried to figure out PTSD, the loss of a limb, or any of the other things that combat veterans have to deal with.”
One of the bonus tracks on the iTunes version of Everything I Should Have Said is a product of one of those songwriting sessions. “No Me Preguntes” is a bolero Foster wrote in Long Beach, California with three Latino veterans: one from the Vietnam Era, and two who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “They all talked about how civilians ask really stupid questions,” Foster remembers. “Some guy in a bar will go, ‘Didja kill somebody?’ The vets would say, ‘Do you really want to know? I don’t think you do. It’s not pretty. There was nothing good about it other than I was doing what I did in defense of my country.’”
Those shared experiences resulted in the bilingual song the trio ended up writing with Foster, the title of which translates to “Don’t Ask Me.”
Twenty-two years after his breakout album, Del Rio, TX 1959, Foster may no longer be on the mainstream country charts (though his songs that have been recorded by others make regular appearances there), but he’s never been more at peace with his career. “A couple things in life have reset what I call my Give-a-Shit Meter,” he explains. “Dealing with both hardship and joy has made me reconsider what’s really important. I don’t get as nervous when I go through a dry spell. I don’t worry as much about what people think. And I take more time now. I’d rather write one song right than five songs wrong.”
Juli Thanki is the editor of Engine 145 and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bluegrass Unlimited, and M Music & Musicians Magazine. In 2011 she received the International Bluegrass Music Association Print Media Person of the Year award.