At the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there are plenty of artifacts and exhibits that trace the life and music, art, writings, and political/social activism of the “This Land is Your Land” author. And there’s space for his many musical descendants as well. But while Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and even Guthrie’s own son Arlo have to share a video screen, Radney Foster has one dedicated just to him.
Showing on a continuous loop is the recently-shot video for his song “Godspeed (Dulces Sueños).” It was written more than 20 years ago and inspired by the long distance that separated Foster and his then-young son when the boy and his mother moved to France. But the dreamy lullaby has been recut and rewritten with some lyrics in Spanish to address the current crisis of immigrants on the border, and specifically of children.
Stark black-and-white footage of Foster and his guitar in Texas and Nashville (at one point, he’s behind a fence) are intercut with photos of actual children, most in distress. Foster is donating all proceeds from the sale of this “prayer for the border” to benefit RAICES Texas, which provides education and legal services to immigrants and refugees.
“Radney allowed us to use it to recognize the struggle of the children at the border who have been separated from their parents,” Guthrie Center Director Deana McCloud says. “We change out videos in the area based on important current events, so this one will stay on display until all those children and their parents are reunited.”
“I have not seen it, but I am shocked, surprised, and honored about that,” Foster himself says. “I’ve got friends who have made entire careers of being political on every single frickin’ record they’ve made! And I’ve only raised my head on a handful of occasions. But I personally know what it’s like to not be able to see your child due to forces beyond your control. So I have a lot of empathy for the situation.”
Foster also knows his geography, having grown up in Del Rio, Texas, a stone’s throw from Mexican soil. “I remember riding my bike to the border, just about a mile and a half away,” he recalls. And his hope is that the song can help change some hearts and minds about the issue, even among the most diehard of the policy’s proponents.
“You reach one person at a time. And maybe someone who is hard-edged on the issue won’t change their minds immediately, but I’m a hopeful person,” Foster reflects. “I’ve had Republicans come up to me and say that they probably disagree with me on 90 percent of issues, but they agree what’s going on at the border is a huge problem. And that it’s wrong.”
Foster will probably play the number when he and fellow singer/guitarist Kim Richey perform a duo show at the Heights Theater on September 5. He’ll also draw from a catalog that includes plenty of other tunes stretching back to the mid-‘80s as part of the duo Foster & Lloyd, his extensive solo career, and as a writer of material for artists like Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, and Luke Bryan.
He’s also still supporting an ambitious 2017 project in For You to See the Stars. It’s the title of both his latest record and his debut book of short stories, where the songs and the prose pieces complement each other in terms of story and subject.
There’s the title story and track, about a man who had to deliver a box at his late father’s request to his estranged grandfather. Others are about a man trying to connect with the daughter he never knew, a damaged homeless veteran living on the streets, a policeman who catches his wife trying to leave him, a high school romance tinted by tragedy, the glory of hearing crackly rock and roll music broadcast from Mexican stations, and a man who is watching his friend of decades slowly lose his health and memory.
Foster says that taking a stab at writing short stories was something he was basically forced into when a doctor ordered him not to speak or sing for six weeks due to severe laryngitis, which stretched into months with recovery and therapy.
“I was going crazy and had written a song called ‘Sycamore Creek.’ And I wrote a note to my wife that I was going to create a short story based on it,” Foster says. “She picked up the pen and wrote down ‘You should, because you’re also driving me crazy!’ And thus began my literary career!” And it's kept going: Foster and his wife have completed a screenplay, and he's also finishing a novel.
For the nine entries, sometimes the song came first and sometimes the story did, but Foster wanted to be sure that all could stand on their own as pieces of art. In some cases, the song takes just an element of the story, as in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The semi-autobiographical story is a comic piece about an early 1960s ladies bridge club and the boy who has an unfortunate urinary accident. But it also takes place on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, throwing the narrative into a different direction.
The accompanying song is based on a small part of the story, where Foster remembers his father playing music on the family’s back porch.
“I was four in 1963, and I just remember how distraught my mother was with the news about Kennedy, and also when my father came home and my sister was let out of school. There was a lot of trauma,” Foster says of the piece.
“It was the first time I saw my mother cry, and that upset me, and it made me cry. So sometimes, the connection between story and song is just one little space.”
The most offbeat effort (and one that brings us back to the area of “Godspeed”), is “All That I Require.” It’s set in a dystopian future where the United States has broken apart and troops from the “United American Republic” quell unrest and enforce strict border policies. The story is centered on a Mexican-American soldier fighting for the government, but who does not have citizenship. The much-scarier song is written from the perspective of the harsh, demagogue president.
“I wrote the song in 2016 before the election, and I felt that voices of authoritarianism and fascism were just hammering down on us and dividing the country. But I knew if I wrote about one political figure, it would piss people off, and I wanted them to think,” Foster recalls. “So I took the slogans from political figures from both the left and the right from the 1930s and just strung them all together and put them in the mouth of the dictator singing the song. That was a hard one to write.”
In the song’s last verse, the "President" sings, “Your skin and bones grandchildren they won’t ask me the tale/I’ll be buried ‘neath the rubble after my last scheme has failed/No, you’re the ones they’ll blame for their orphaned world that bleeds/From all those days you slept instead of learning…from history.”
“I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with people over social media about that song!,” Foster says. “We have to sit down and have a civil discourse about the disagreement of ideas. And if we can’t do that, we’re in real trouble.”
Radney Foster and Kim Richey play 8 p.m., September 5, at the Heights Theater, 339 West 19th St. Tickets $22-$24. Call 214-272-8346 or visit TheHeightsTheater.com.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.