Radney Foster writes honest songs that appeal to the "Universal Human Condition." Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and The Dixie Chicks have all interpreted his work. Radney speaks of his songs (this is our first interview where the words "reticent" and "impetuous" both appear), and defines the job of a songwriter.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): So I've got several songs here that I would like to ask you about - oh, and by the way, bless you for "Raining On Sunday."
Radney Foster: (laughs) Oh, thank you very much.
Songfacts: That is the song that introduced me to Keith Urban.
Radney: Oh, wow.
Songfacts: You know what, why don't we start with that one?
Radney: Okay. Well, the story I always tell live, which is kind of a joke but kind of true, is that all God's children Sunday afternoons at my house have to take a nap. It's the rule. Everybody has quiet time. Which is kind of also how I got my third child. But there it is, the history of the song. But actually the song was written before my third child was conceived. So we were just laughing, and Darryl Brown and I were writing for the See What You Want To See album, and we were laughing about how we had quiet time on the weekends with my two boys. And that that was just sort of a precious thing to me, no matter what was happening. Half the time it's so you can get a million other things done on your "honey-do" list, especially if it's raining. It's like, That's it! Raining on Sunday. And the whole thing ended up from there.
Songfacts: Oh, how fun. How did Keith Urban wind up picking that up?
Radney: He was just a big fan. I didn't know he was interested in it until he actually came up to me and said, "Man, I'm cutting 'Raining On Sunday' off of See What You Want To See on my next record. I love that album." Very nice, and just a really, really sweet guy. And you know I've heard that kind of loose talk before in this business.
Songfacts: You don't say.
Radney: And I've learned not to take it too seriously. But, by golly he did. And it was obviously just a huge thing for him, and for us as well.
Songfacts: Yeah, fabulous. My first Keith Urban song. A couple of the ones, of your older ones that I loved back in the day, "Nobody Wins," and "Just Call Me Lonesome." And I have to confess, "Just Call Me Lonesome," I always thought that Dwight Yoakam sang that.
Radney: You know what, I have people think that all the time.
Songfacts: Really? So I'm not crazy.
Radney: And I know not why. I think it was mostly because of the Bakersfield shuffle, and he owned so much of that real estate, so to speak. But I was writing with George Ducas in sort of the same situation, and just really trying to figure out how to write something that Harlan Howard would have written, or Ray Price, or Buck Owens would have sung. Just how much I love that feel, and the whole thing. And when I turned it in over at Arista, they jumped up and down – literally – and said, "That's it. That's your first single, buddy." The whole deal.
"Nobody Wins" was written with Kim Richey. I think both of us were going through really bad relationships, but unwilling to talk about it at the time, but willing to at least talk about how you hate it when you have a fight with your spouse, and how awful that is. And I was like, "Yeah, nobody wins those things." And that's just how it was born. Neither one of us are with the person that we were with when we wrote the song, obviously.
Songfacts: I'm wondering about co-writing with somebody. Does one of you just get an idea, and you throw it on the table, and the other person picks it up and says, "Okay, I can do something with this."?
Radney: To me, writing on your own is sort of a monkish thing, but I still do that quite a bit. But co-writing is a lot like therapy. You talk through what goes on down in the soul. Maybe not necessarily yours, but at some times it's yours. I like to think that the ones that are best are the ones that you stick a big piece of your gut into, and really figure out what is it about yourself that makes somebody go, "Wow, that guy got in my living room. How did he know exactly how I felt?" Well, it's because the human condition is pretty universal.
Songfacts: I'm getting the feeling that you are one of these rare individuals that really puts more than just words on paper into your songs.
Radney: Well, putting words on paper isn't your job. Your job is to go digging around in your soul. And that's the end of it all. A songwriter's job is to go digging around in his soul. And come up with, and put to paper, what others can't express about the soul itself.
Songfacts: That's perfect. I love that. Okay, I also read somewhere at some point that "GodSpeed (Sweet Dreams)" was for your son, that you were going through a divorce and she moved away?
Radney: Yeah, my oldest boy, who's actually home on Spring Break, whose phone I'm talking on, his mother and I separated when he was very young, and divorced. And things were as good as can be expected in those kinds of situations. We were both trying very hard to be good parents. But she re-married a guy from France, and immigrated to France with my son… to 5,000 miles away. He was five. Which led to all kinds of things; big court battles, all kinds of things. A big mess. And when I had lost and knew that there was nothing else I could do to try to keep him closer to home, and he was going, I wanted something that he could take with him, that he would know that I loved him. And so I wrote that little lullaby, and I put it on cassette five times in a row. And he had a little Fisher Price big button thing that he could listen to at night. And to his mother's credit, she let him. And I recorded it in my home studio with just me and my guitar, and I thought that would be the last time I ever recorded it. And so I guess about a year after that, my manager and his wife were gonna have a baby. And I said, "Hey, let me play this song that I wrote for Jule, I'll put on a cassette for you guys." And I played it for him and he just wept. He said, "That's one of the most powerful things you've ever written in your life." He says, "You have to put that on a record." I said, "Yeah, but it's a kid…" He said, "I don't care what kind of song it is. It's an unbelievable song. It's got to go on your next album." And so I did. I ended up putting it on See What You Want To See, same record as "Raining On Sunday." Emmylou Harris sang on it, and that was just a real, real thrill. And then years later, when the Dixie Chicks cut it, and Jule was, I want to say 10 or 11, they had kind of said, "Will you come by? We're mixing it, and we wanted you to hear it." And I'd run into one of them in town, and I said, "Well, Jule's in town, and he would love to hear that thing." And they said, "Great." So unbeknownst to me, they're freaking, they're terrified that he won't like it. So we were all sitting in chairs, and they were behind me, I could see them. We got through the first chorus. And my son got up out of his chair and got over and got in my lap. This is a 10-year-old boy, way too big to be in Daddy's lap. But it was a real, real sweet moment.
Songfacts: Oh, my goodness.
Radney: The cool thing about that song is I can't tell you the number of people who contacted me in the most unbelievable ways about how that song has touched their lives. Whether it's played at the funeral of a child they lost, or I've had guys come up to me at shows with their hair cut high and tight and say, "Mr. Foster, I just spent a year and a half in Iraq, and every time I got my kids on the phone I sang that song to them." I mean, it's been a really powerful, emotional experience for me.
Songfacts: How old is your son now?
Radney: He's 15. He's way too big to be in Daddy's lap.
Songfacts: Does he still have that cassette?
Radney: You know, I don't know if he still has the cassette or not. I bet it's in his room in France, probably, somewhere, yeah.
Songfacts: Oh, so he's visiting from France, he's still living over there?
Radney: He's still living there, absolutely. He goes to school there. He lives with his mom, and he's in high school – he's a sophomore in high school. So we make lemonade out of lemons every single day.
Songfacts: Excellent. Would you object to my putting his name in the little article about that song?
Radney: No. His name is Julien.
Songfacts: I haven't actually heard the Dixie Chicks' version of that.
Radney: Yeah, it's on the Home record. As a matter of fact it was the single that was killed by the whole political debacle. A whole 'nother thing. I was like, What's unpatriotic about singing to your kids? But I couldn't figure it out.
Songfacts: Yeah, there's so many things I can't figure out about that.
Radney: I'm not gonna step off that cliff.
Songfacts: I don't blame you. Onward. "Texas In 1880." Did you ever ride in a rodeo?
Radney: No, ma'am. I was a rancher's kid… my grandfather was a rancher, and I sure did chase my fair share of cows, and I roped very badly. And I was put to work, as teenagers are when they're needed. But, first cousin rides rodeo, and two guys that I went to high school with were PRCA cowboys. And the guy who really is the whole Super Bowl, the pro bull rider association guy, who's very, very involved in that, grew up down the street from me. Ollie Smith won the best all-around cowboy cavalry stampede when I was a sophomore in college. The whole bridge where it talks about, "someone's gonna see that buckle hanging around your belt," well, that buckle that they used to give aren't near as big as the ones they get now, because they're really like trophies now. You can actually wear 'em. There's a skinny guy with a wife and kids in Del Rio that ranches about 15,000 acres, that drives a beat-up pickup truck, and work shirt and jeans, but on that belt, if you ever notice when he's dressed up on a Saturday night to go someplace, let's see, it was 1953 World Champion bull rider. So it was a pretty impressive deal, like winning the Super Bowl. So I mean, that's a cool thing, to grow up around those guys. You realize any of 'em makin' millions of dollars… well, Mack is, but he owns bulls that people ride. He doesn't make very much money rodeoing, but he's making a helluva lot of money by running then.
Songfacts: And he's not out there at risk of getting stomped on or squashed.
Radney: Like I say, he's just raising bulls.
Songfacts: That's the smart way to go.
Radney: That's what he said. But my mother's best friend, when I was living in Nashville, and back packing all my stuff, basically was worried about me, and she came and told me just to be careful. Because she said, "Radney, that music business is just like rodeoing. It'll get in your blood and you can't get it out." And she should have known, because she had kids riding all over the state of Texas and Oklahoma rodeoing in high school, so that just really stuck with me. And right before Foster and Lloyd was going in to make our first record, I just got to thinking about that, and I was at I think a dinner party or something, and somebody said something like, "It's so wild, like Texas back in the 1880s," you know, during essentially the wild, wild west. Talking about 1875 to about 1900, 25 years.
Songfacts: That particular song paints a really vivid picture.
Radney: And that was my whole point. It's really a song about dreamers. It's not really a rodeo song. It is a rodeo song, but it's just about people who are willing to sacrifice everything for a dream. And I think dreams are worth sacrificing heart and soul, and poverty and all kinds of other things that we put up with or sacrifice in order to obtain them.
Songfacts: Absolutely. Have you got time for a couple more here?
Radney: Got time for one more.
Songfacts: Time for one more – oh no, which one am I gonna pick? I'll let you pick. I have "Somebody Take Me Home," and "Half Of My Mistakes."
Radney: Oh, let's talk about "Half Of My Mistakes."
Radney: Oh, I'll talk about 'em both. "Half Of My Mistakes" was written with a guy named Bobby Houck from a band called Blue Dog, and he and I were writing for his band. You know, he'd come to Nashville, and sit down and writing, and we had a connection through friends of a friend. We'd written this other song, and at the end of the day he said, "I have this idea that I really want us to write tomorrow, if it's cool with you." And he told me this story about his dad, and said that his father, whenever he was giving out fatherly advice, always quoted Disraeli, who was the famous English politician, 19th-century English politician. And Disraeli always said that half of his mistakes were because he had been reticent, and the other half because he had been impetuous. And I said, "Well, I don't know if 'reticent' and 'impetuous' will make it into a country song, but I get the point. And it's a great idea. And so we'll write on it tomorrow." And after supper, after I got to put the kids to bed, I said, "Honey, I gotta go to the basement." So I was down in the basement, and that night after everybody had gone to bed, I wrote about 90 percent of that thing. I called Bobby next morning and I said, "I hope you like the direction I'm going with this, because I've gotten really far down the road. I hope I'm not in a world of a mess." But he heard it, and he was like, "Man, that's just fantastic." And so we finished it together that morning. But it has a whole bunch of my whole life in there, heart and soul, all wrapped in that.
Songfacts: In your Q&A, your answer was that that would best define your life.
Radney: Oh, absolutely. I mean you can't get through life without making mistakes. And I think that character is a product of how you handle mistakes, not whether or not you make any. And those are the defining moments in our lives, good or bad. And the other reason is that there are beautiful things – I mean, there are beautiful, beautiful things that have come out of some really big mistakes I've made. I mean, I would never have wished to have gotten divorced in my life. I would never have wished to go through that. But I wouldn't have the family I have today if I hadn't. There's so many things about that. You can't go back and say, "Well, gosh, I wish I never married that woman." I mean, I had a beautiful child with her. I loved her enough to do that. There's so many things in life that are built around what you do with life when things screw up.
Songfacts: That is so great to hear that. You have such a great attitude.
Radney: But the other one is "Can Somebody Take Me Home," Randy Rogers and I, it's the first song we wrote together. I'll tell you a funny story about recording that. We wrote it in a hotel room. He'd already written that chorus, and we sat there and wrote that thing, and actually a lot later he told me how much, when we got through writing it, he hated the line, "I hate this haunted bed, so down here's where I sleep." He just couldn't get past the haunted bed. What the hell's the haunted bed? Oh my God. I don't know. He thought it was dreadful. And he said he realized about halfway through playing it for people that everybody's like, "Wow, what a great line. 'I hate that haunted bed, so down here's where I sleep.'" He said, "I don't know everything." I said, "Well, I don't either. It could have been a lousy line, you could have been right." But it was funny just because it just taught him. I said, "Well, that's a good lesson in life for anybody. To figure out, it's like, I don't always shave the best instinct." And I'm guilty of being too flowery. But anyway, when we were recording it, those guys had worked it up, and they had this whole arrangement down, and they were playing it at punk pace. I mean, the Sex Pistols couldn't have played it any better. And I was like, "Guys…" So I knew that if I just said, "Man, this is a ballad," it was gonna be a mid-tempo ballad. That's kind of like, "Uh oh." It was the first thing we were recording, and they were all excited. So I kept going, "Let's slow it down a little bit." Then we recorded it. It's like, "Still a little too fast." They're like, "Really?" It's like, "Yeah, slow it down just a little bit more, couple more clicks." Finally I was like, "Guys, I'm not sure this is working." I said, "We can go back to this, but can we try this one other way?" I finally got the drummer and the bass player on my side, and I was like, "Think about U2 records, think about being spooky instead of being speedy." And they were like, "Oh, we get it." And everybody in the band, when we got through recording it, loved it – except Randy. He hated it. So hacked off at me that he didn't talk to me for the rest of the day. And this was the first day we were making the record, so I was like, "Okay. This is gonna be interesting." But he got over it. Next morning I realized he just did not like it… I said, "If you still hate that song, on the last day that we're recording, we'll do it your way." I said, "Just listen to it again for three or four days. Live with it." And the third day he came up to me and said, "It's my favorite track. I love what we did. I'm totally convinced. I was blown away by it."
Songfacts: So it all worked out.
Radney: I'm glad, because it would have a lousy speed metal song.
Songfacts: I can't even imagine.
Radney: You'd miss all those words.
September 15, 2007. Radney's website is radneyfoster.com.