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Pure Spunk

Del Rio-bred Radney Foster is a cowpunk both on stage and off

Radney Foster has always been equal parts pop, punk and country. His twang is unrepentant and omnipresent, whether in conversation or from the stage, but he has until recently layered on enough sheen to pass country radio's rough-edges test.

What sets Foster apart from any number of twangy pop crooners is his keen wit. His pop muse is the same one that has the ear of Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw and Ray Davies, not the demonic Manilowesque spirit that possesses the likes of Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. As for his punk cred, let it be said that when Foster doesn't like the rules, like his early hero (and original cowpunk) Buddy Holly, he tries to change them, in life as well as in music. If he can't, he goes ahead anyway.

For a while, Nashville suited Foster just fine. This was in the late '80s when, as one half of the ultraharmonious Foster and Lloyd (they were sort of like a smarter Brooks and Dunn sans glitz), Foster duked it out on the playlists and the charts with quality acts like Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs.

Foster describes his new CD as his "Whew, come out and drink a beer" album.
Foster describes his new CD as his "Whew, come out and drink a beer" album.
Foster describes his new CD as his "Whew, come out and drink a beer" album.
Foster describes his new CD as his "Whew, come out and drink a beer" album.

With the advent of Garth in the early '90s and the rise of his hat-act clone army, radio became streamlined. Gone were Foster and Lloyd's cowpunkish twang-pop. Gone was Skaggs's bluegrass, Yoakam's Bakersfield update, Earle's politicized hard folk and the blue-eyed soul of T. Graham Brown. In their place popped up legions of mostly forgotten Stetson-clad nonentities. Since then, things have gotten only worse. "Radio guys always have and always will look for ways to tell you, 'I can't play that,' " says Foster. "So the labels took the easy way out for so long and people got sick of it, and now the majors are just basically making records based on fear."

As Foster has described it, country radio turned right, and he turned left. He split with Bill Lloyd and scored a couple of solo hits on Arista in the early '90s, most notable among them "Just Call Me Lonesome." The song's title was fateful, for that was just how he found himself when his marriage foundered and his wife took their young son, Jule, to live in France with her new husband.

Foster had no legal recourse. Under Tennessee law, the custodial parent could take the child wherever she (for it was almost always the mother) wanted, and visitation was up to the father. In other words, Foster could still see his son weekly, if he was willing to buy his own personal seat on the Concorde. So this son and grandson of Del Rio lawyers set about changing the law.

"I spent about nine months putting on a coat and tie and walking the halls" of the Tennessee legislature, Foster recalls. "My music career suffered for it. But you know, that's okay. Those little silver things are not gonna hug me when I'm old. They're wonderful to be able to make, and they're an integral part of my life, but they're nothing compared to my family. So I don't mind that my career had to take a backseat for a year so I could do something that was right. You've got to figure out a way to be able to sleep at night."

His lobbying bore fruit. "We now have a best-interest clause in Tennessee," he states with satisfaction. "Whereas before, the Tennessee Supreme Court had always said, 'We don't want to be Solomon. The custodial parent can take the child wherever they want to go.' That's pretty harsh medicine. I just wanted those cases to be judged on an individual basis. If a dad hadn't paid his back child support in months and never sees his kid and doesn't give a care, well, then, [the mother] ought to be able to take [her child] anywhere in the world she wants to go. But if he lives at your house three days a week and you're always on time with your child support and you're at every PTA meeting, then maybe that kind of intimacy ought to count for something."

Foster sees much more of Jule these days, though he hopes that his son's other family will move back to America. "We're very lucky in that I have a flexible job," he says. "I get over to France about twice a year, and he comes over for vacations and seven weeks every summer."

With custody resolved, if not satisfactorily then at least tolerably, Foster plunged back into music. Needless to say, there was a lot on his mind, most of which wound up on See What You Want to See, his last record for Arista and a declaration of independence from country Nashville-style. "That one was made as sort of a catharsis," Foster says. "It tells the story of a divorce, a really messy custody situation, and at the same time a remarriage. So it's got all of the sort of roller-coaster rides that you can imagine."

Now, with the release of the live CD, Are You Ready for the Big Show? (which Foster describes as his "Whew, come out and drink a beer" record), the newly independent Foster's coaster is creaking back up the track again. He's scored another radio hit with his reprise of "Texas in 1880," cut with Pat Green, who remains on a mission to grace every song with "Texas" in the title. He's launched a Web site (www.purespunk.com), which touts the coolest gigs in America (generally wherever Radney Foster is on stage), offers his autographed CDs for sale and plugs the careers of friends like Lee Roy Parnell, Charlie Robison and Robert Cray. Then there's The Ionizer's advice column, in which such issues as "What sort of demented individuals buy Billy Gilman's music?" are tackled with rare grace by an anonymous sage.

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