Radney Foster's most recent release Everything I Should Have Said is centered around the women in his life: his wife, ex-wife, and daughter. In fact, it was Foster's little girl who inspired the anti-hate-speech song "Not in My House."
"My daughter was 11, and she came home — and I'll never forget it — and she's making a peanut butter sandwich, and she asked me what the word 'slut' meant," says Foster from his home in Nashville. "She was totally serious. She had no idea. She said, 'Daddy, is that a bad word?' And it just took the breath out of me.
"I said, 'It's a word that's just used to make someone feel small and feel bad. It's about a woman's sexuality, and you can ask your mama more about that stuff."
But the album's lead track, the swampy "Whose Heart You Wreck" is dedicated to Foster's harshest mistress: his muse.
"Tom Waits tells this great story," Foster explains. "He's driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and he gets an idea, and he has no piece of paper and he's got no cassette recorder or whatever. And he's in eight lanes of traffic, and if he tries to get off, he's going to get killed. And the punchline is, it's like, 'Can't you see I'm busy here? If this thing's so dang important to get out into the universe right now, go bug Leonard Cohen. He's really good, and he lives in an apartment in New York. He's not doing anything.'"
"And it just got me thinking: What's the muse like for me? And I figured out she's like a drunk mistress that shows up at two in the morning. And you don't know if that's going to be a good thing or a bad thing," he says. There's an elation, he adds, when things go well, "and then there's just this abject frustration when you wake up and it really is just a piece of crap, or when you spend a whole day messing with something and you realize it's never going to pan out."
It's panned out pretty well for Foster so far. Since splitting from Foster and Lloyd, the chart-topping country duo he formed with Bill Lloyd, Foster's been skillfully bridging the divide between Music Row polish and gritty Red Dirt sincerity. His songs have been taken to the top of the country charts by the likes of Sara Evans, The Dixie Chicks, and Keith Urban, the latter of which turned Foster's "I'm In" and "Raining on Sunday" into new-canon classics.
But hearing Foster perform his own version of those songs — his big, strong voice relaying his rich, evocative songs — is the best testament to Foster's prodigious talents. Even without the chart-topping bylines, Foster would nonetheless be near the top of the very long list of great Texas singer-songwriters, drawing from the same wellspring that birthed the songwriters that made him fall in love with country music in the first place.
"That's where I come from as a writer," Foster says. "There's always going to be a country edge to it, if for no other reason than the way I sing."
Even within Texas, Foster grew up in two worlds. During the school year, he'd hunker over a transistor radio in Del Rio and listen to country songs and boleros on border radio. Dad was a lawyer, and mom was a schoolteacher, but grandpa was an honest-to-god cowboy — a rancher and raconteur who lived in east Texas. During the summers, Foster would herd cattle on horseback on his grandfather's ranch.
"Visiting my grandparents out there, we'd build a campfire and he'd tell cowboy stories," Foster says. "And my uncle or my dad would play a Lefty Frizell or a Hank [Williams] song or a Jimmy Reed song or Fats Waller. And at our home in Del Rio on Saturday nights, somebody brought the potato salad and somebody brought the barbecue and somebody brought the beer, but everybody brought an instrument."
Foster learned quickly, he says, that the name in tiny print under the song title on the 45s he collected as a kid was the guy who wrote it. From there, he says, "it was just becoming obsessed with Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt."
Like the songs of Van Zandt, Foster's music doesn't jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. And like Van Zandt, Foster's always trying to find that little piece of truth.
"I've just gotten old enough that my give-a-shit meter has really reset," Foster says. "I really write from a much more personal point of view, but I try to make it universal enough that everyone could understand what I'm feeling."