A Conversation With Radney Foster

Radney Foster had plenty to prove with Del Rio, TX., 1959—and he largely proved it. His debut solo album and the first since a split with longtime songwriting partner Bill Lloyd, the influential 1992 release was a monumental statement of self for a West Texas native who was never truly comfortable as a Nashville hitmaker. With its prescient mix of roots country, hillbilly rock and pristine pop, Del Rio celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. Three decades later, it still serves as an impressive case study for how great songwriting can blur genres and make country converts out of country skeptics (myself included).

Though no reissues are planned for Del Rio, TX., 1959, in 2022, Foster won’t rule out a first-ever vinyl edition at some point in the near future. Just prior to hitting the road for a string of live shows to celebrate the anniversary, he spoke with MAGNET from his home in Nashville.

Del Rio, TX., 1959 was you first solo album. So obviously you had something the prove.
Oh, yeah. The RCA Nashville office had kind of given up on Bill and I, and there was talk of us going up and making a rock record for RCA New York, because we were so much in the same vein as Joe Ely and the dB’s. But, like Buck Owens said, I felt like I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers. It just seemed like time to let the Foster & Lloyd thing go. And I had a whole year where I was in limbo with BMG Publishing and couldn’t get paid. So I went out on the road for a year with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Vince Gill—just me and my guitar in theaters. So every song had to hold the audience’s attention. That’s when I wrote all that music.

The album was basically conceived on the road?
Well, yeah. Otherwise, I was gonna lose my house. Then Steve Fishell—who produced Del Rio, TX.—asked me if I’d do a showcase at the Bluebird Cafe and have Raul Malo open for me. At the time, the Mavericks were just moving from Miami to Nashville. So I called up a few people I knew at the labels, and one of them was Tim DuBois at Arista Records. He said, “You know I love you, but I’m looking for someone who’s more traditional.” And I said, “Don’t say that until you’ve heard the music.” I got through my set, and Tim cornered me back in the kitchen and said, “You’re going to get a lot of offers from labels, and I just wanted to be the first in line.” I shook his hand and said, “I don’t want to work with anyone else.”

So you were comfortable going into the studio with the material you had.
Yeah, but I was still writing. I’d sit in front of Tim’s desk every Friday and play the songs. We had to have that magical thing called a first single, and I kept coming in with song after song. Then I played him “Just Call Me Lonesome,” and he literally stood on his desk and said, “That’s it!”

Country music is in a much different place now than it was 1992, when Del Rio, TX. came out.
Ya think? [Laughs]

And yet five songs on that album made the Billboard top-40 country charts, with “Nobody Wins” hitting number two. Were you surprised it did so well?
I knew they were really good songs. There was always the debate over the traditional songs versus the rockers. But at the same time, if you hear me play any of them with an acoustic guitar, they sound like country songs.

Regardless, you were doing something that was against the grain at the time.
I have artists who still come up to me and say that the record was a huge influence on them. Darius Rucker called me when he was making his second country record and said, “I need your permission for something. This record is me more than anything else I’ve ever done, so I’d like to name it Charleston, SC 1966.” I’ve never received a bigger compliment.

Is Del Rio, TX., 1959 a concept album?
In a way, it is. I was trying to show all the elements that influenced me, from Bakersfield to Irish murder ballads. Put it this way: Is Old No. 1 by Guy Clark a concept album?

In my book it is.
OK, there you go.That’s the record that I bought and said, “Oh shit. There’s a deeper place to go.”

—Hobart Rowland

Catch Radney Foster on tour in a city near you.