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Nashville Scene Seeing Clearly

Radney Foster pulls through adversity with the best work of his career

By Michael McCall

JUNE 1, 1999:  For the last five years, Radney Foster had much more on his mind than his music career. His marriage of 12 years fell apart after years of struggle and the birth of a child. While juggling the demands of concert touring and record promotion, he adjusted to joint custody and to being a single parent, eventually settling on a schedule that had him leaving town every Thursday morning and hurrying back every Sunday night.

He also fell in love again, as did his ex-wife, the former Mary Springs Scarborough. She informed Foster that she would be moving to France, with their young son Jule. Foster protested, eventually taking his objections to court. He lost the case. Then he joined forces with Dads Against Discrimination and battled the state Legislature to have custody laws changed. He lost that effort too. His son, now 7 years old, currently resides in France and spends summers with his father. Meanwhile, Foster got married again, to Nashville-based entertainment journalist Cyndi Hoelzle. She is due to give birth to the couple's first child in July.

For much of this time, Foster simply put his career on hold. It wasn't a good time to do so, since the progress he'd made as a solo artist in the early '90s had already hit some bumps. Originally, the Texan had parlayed his late-'80s success as part of the country duo Foster & Lloyd into a promising solo career. His first album, Del Rio, TX 1959, featured a couple of Top 10 hits, "Just Call Me Lonesome" and "Nobody Wins." But a second album, Labor of Love, stiffed, and Foster found himself falling out of step with the mainstream country music market.

In 1996, he started a new record with producer Mac McAnally, but he walked away from the project when his personal problems flared. Once his son had moved to Europe, however, and Foster sat down to write songs again, emotion poured from his pen. The result is See What You Want to See, the gutsiest, most memorable album of his career. "It cuts more to the bone than anything I've ever done," he says.

From songs about betrayal and dissolution to the rediscovery of love and faith, Foster's album explores the lows and highs of his life since 1994, when he and his first wife split. One of the pleasures of the album is its roller coaster of emotions, which encompass pain, frustration, renewal, and rapture. Of course, many performers go through similar transitions without making a record as powerful as See What You Want to See. But Foster figures his life and his creativity happened to crest simultaneously.

"The good thing about getting older is that you get more reflective, and maybe you can think a little clearer and dig a little deeper," says Foster, who'll turn 40 on July 20. "I think the best music is born out of peaks and valleys, and not of the middle ground. If you learn how to mine those feelings, good and bad, then you're going to have something that has more emotion in it. Of course, I'd always thought I'd done that in the past. But it took a lot more shit for me to take it further and dig in deeper."

On his new album, Foster removed all the mainstream country inflections of his previous work and allowed himself to break free of the tight formulas necessary to make it on Music Row. In the end, that's another reason the album is so striking: By refusing to write for a specific format, Foster ended up with a mature album of progressive pop music. Instead of trying to mimic current trends, he gives his words a freer, more expansive sound that allows the complexities of his emotions to flourish.

"Part of the reason for the change musically was that my edges probably got where they stuck out more on a personal level, so the edges on the songs started to stick out more," he says. "Going through all that I'd gone through made my give-a-shit meter go to nothing. It no longer bothered me if someone didn't like what I was doing. It was like, 'You don't like my song? Well, your opinion is really low on my priority list, man. Tell me something that's really going to hurt me.' "

In a way, he says, his experiences allowed him to readjust his priorities, which can become somewhat skewed in the fantasy world of making music for a living and trying to please the narrow dictates of radio programmers and record executives. "I mean, when your kid just moved 5,000 miles away, everything else seems much less significant," he says. "So I stopped trying to be the good guy who pleases everybody else, and I started doing what I thought worked best for the songs. When you're trying to make records within the Nashville industry format, just by its nature there are parameters that limit what you can do and say and be. After what I'd been through, the idea of going back and playing that game was just pathetic to me. I was not going to do it."

For a while, Foster wasn't sure what label, if any, was going to release See What You Want to See, which originally was set to come out last October but was temporarily shelved by Arista Records. As he remembers it, "I was like, 'Oh my God, what else can happen to me? I poured more of my heart and soul into a record than I ever have in my life, and now they're pulling it from warehouses.' "

In the end, Foster left the bigger Arista Nashville label to work with the smaller, more diverse Arista Austin imprint. That allowed the record company to pursue acceptance within the pop community and airplay on a variety of formats. "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)," a moving lullaby that Foster wrote for his son, is currently being sent to a variety of radio stations for a special Father's Day promotion.

"I know they believe in this album," Foster says of his record label. "It's going to get a shot, and that's all I can ask."

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