Radney Foster may be the most unassuming country singer out there.
The Texas-born songwriter looks nothing like the cowboy-hatted studs that currently dominate the country music charts. With his glasses and somewhat unruly hair, he looks more like an assistant professor or graduate school lit major than a country singer and songwriter.
And the same can be said for his sound, which is smaller and more personal than the music generally recorded by folks like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, music that has its charms, to be sure, but that can seem like the country equivalent of Mariah Carey.
While Foster has had some chart success — his debut solo record, the 1992 Del Rio, Texas, 1959, placed four singles in the Top 40 and two in the Top Ten — his music generally has not connected with the wider listening public. He is, in many ways, a niche performer, inhabiting some of the same ground as Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle — literate songwriters who come from country but who are difficult to classify — though perhaps not as well known.
Foster, like Williams and Earle, is first and foremost a country songwriter who uses elements of pop, rock and other genres to expand the base of his music. While Foster is not a trailblazer, he is not afraid to push the boundaries — his critically well-regarded 2002 disc, Another Way to Go, his first studio effort on Dualtone, was as much classic R&B as it was country.
His latest, This World We Live In, is a strong record set firmly along the seam between contemporary country and roots-rock. Like both Williams and Earle — and many country musicians who have come to be associated with the alt.country movement (The Flatlanders, for instance, or Robert Earl Keen) — Foster’s music is stripped down and has a southern twang that more tightly ties it to the country camp than country-rock bands like The Eagles or alt.country poster boy Ryan Adams.
In many ways, The World We Live In reminds me of Charlie Robison’s Good Times, which spawned the hit single “El Cerrito Place”, a whiskey-soaked ballad about loss and loneliness, as well as a handful of rowdy rockers straight from the Texas-school of outlaw country. Like Robison, Foster’s lyrics are small observations that add up to a larger whole, the little details of lives lived, the joys and fears, the loves won and lost.
“Half of my mistakes were just among friends”, he sings in “Half of My Mistakes”:
You get a little distance on it the truth is clearer, /
Half of my mistakes, I’d probably make ’em again, /
And if I had it all to do over I’ m sure I’d win and lose just as much, / Spend less time on right and wrong, /
And a lot more time on love.”
And that is how this record goes, Foster lamenting being stuck in place (in “New ZIP Code”) or describing the pain of finding a little comfort in unlikely places (“The Kindness of Strangers”). It’s an unvarnished record, unpretentious and open to the world — fragile in many ways, but also joyful and strong. There is no bombast here, just humanity, life the way it is experienced by most of us.
This human dimension is what connects Foster’s songwriting to that of country legends like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Jimmy Webb and Townes Van Zandt, writers whose songs capture the reality of everyday living, who write for adults and about adult concerns. (Think of the loneliness of the “Wichita Lineman” or “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.)
At the same time, This World We Live In is much more than a country record. From the opening track — the pumped-up “Drunk on Love,” which features a snaking guitar line from the legendary Waddy Wachtel — the band seeks and finds a rock groove. It is Wachtel’s presence, in fact, along with other rock ‘n’ rollers — Charley Drayton (who, along with Wachtel, is a member of Keith Richard’s side project, the X-Pensive Winos), Wallflowers’ keyboardist Rami Jaffe and bassist Bob Glaub, who has played (along with Wachtel) with Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Warren Zevon — that pushes the record into the country-rock seam.
While this cross-pollination makes for good music, it also can make Foster difficult to classify and market — which is too bad. This World We Live In deserves the kind of wider airplay generally received by country stars like Montgomery Gentry. I doubt that kind of airplay is coming, but as Foster sings “we can be fools that dream”.