Though he is best known as a singer and songwriter, country music star Radney Foster thinks of himself as a storyteller.
Foster returned to Del Rio to perform as the headliner in the city’s annual Fourth of July musical celebration Thursday at the Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez Jr. Amphitheater.
Before going onstage and starting his show with a rousing rendition of one of the big hits from his very first album, then moving to songs from his most recent collection, Foster spoke about how Del Rio has shaped his life and his art.
“It always feels great to come back. It is such an informative part of my upbringing, and it has made so much of a thumbprint on me. I think some of that is not just because I was raised here my first 18 to 22 years, but because it is my father’s hometown and my grandfather’s hometown,” he said.
Foster said Del Rio is unique, and that uniqueness has flowed throughout his life and music.
“It is a bicultural place. It is a bilingual place ... I think that’s part of it. I tell people all the time, if you listen to ‘Raining on Sunday,’ that’s got an R&B (rhythm and blues) backbeat. If you listen to the chord changes and the melodies and the harmonies, it’s huapango, in all honesty, or mariachi, however you want to think about it. It’s that two-part harmony, but using those minor chords in places that in western music – and by that I mean European music – we don’t use chords that way.
“I think that’s part of it. I think there’s also something about cowboy culture that always is intriguing as a subject matter, and since I write country music, that’s probably a good thing for me. I think the same is holding true of how to put that into the fiction that I’m writing, the book of short stories,” Foster said.
Foster said he returned to memories of his Del Rio and Val Verde County roots when he began writing his first book, a collection of short stories called “For You to See the Stars.”
“The best way to write something that somebody might want to read is to figure out how to put all the emotion into characters that you possibly can, that makes them feel real and come alive, and the best way to do that is to write what you know. So I thought about the places that I loved to go, I thought about the places that always inspire me every time I do go, and I thought about my hometown,” he said.
“When the guys today were like, ‘That creek is awesome,’ I said, ‘Yes, it is, when it was 105 degrees, we all went and played in the creek because it was still 68 degrees rolling through town.’ I think there’s a lot of magic that happens here because it is a jumping-off place to the wild west, and the fact that Mexico being right there makes this place different than towns like Brackettville, Uvalde or Comstock because it is really informative when you can ride your bike at nine years of age to the international bridge, and that’s something that’s unique,” Foster added.
Part of telling those stories, though, means dealing with the pain of loss and heartache.
Foster spoke about the depth of sadness he experienced when his son was five years old.
“I had had joint custody of him, and he was removed from me and from the country for 13 years. He moved to France with his mom, which was very, very difficult,” Foster said.
Another blow came when his father died.
“Daddy was my best friend. I’ve been in Del Rio (Thursday) less than 24 hours, and I’ve had five people tell me, ‘Your dad was the epitome of a gentleman,’ and told me all these things about how much Dad meant to them. I talked to him all the time, and that was a real tough thing.
“So I took those losses, and I thought about what do you have to do when all of a sudden you really need to reconcile with someone you haven’t been reconciled to for a long time? And so I thought, what if the son who’s still alive gets sent on a journey and it’s really the spark that might reconcile a dysfunctional family? And I thought that was a pretty good idea for a short story,” Foster said.
He said one of his most difficult moments recently came when he developed a condition that briefly threatened his identity.
“For decades, I thought of myself as ‘Radney Foster, singer/songwriter,’ then I got laryngitis so bad that I could not speak for six weeks, and I had to go through vocal therapy for six more weeks, so for three months, I couldn’t talk ... So week three, I’m freaking out, and I wrote a note to my wife and said, ‘Babe, I think there’s a short story in a song I wrote about six months ago, and I’m going to write it to keep from going crazy.’ She picked up the pen and wrote back to me, ‘You should, because you’re driving me crazy.’ And that was the first short story I wrote, which is the longest in the book, is ‘Sycamore Creek.’”
What advice would he give to young artists in his hometown?
“You need to hone your craft. Read everything you can read. Write lots of sings. Write really lousy ones. Willie Nelson once told me, ‘The first 100 songs don’t count, so keep writing.’ That was his advice to me when I was 22 years old, and it’s really great advice.
“That would be the biggest part of my advice: Keep at it, and don’t be afraid to face your fears, to face rejection. You’re going to have to get thick skin, because you’re going to be rejected, a lot, and then sooner or later, you have to decide whether that’s worth it or not,” Foster said.
Foster plans to return to Del Rio later this year for a new book he is writing, but said he was thrilled to be back to celebrate Independence Day with his first fans.
“It’s a real thrill to be play on the Fourth of July in your hometown. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Foster said.