Even as he’s lived two-thirds of his life in Tennessee, Radney Foster has always considered himself a Texas songwriter. And now it’s official, as the Del Rio native is set to be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame on Feb. 25. “Many of the songwriters I look up to are in there,” says Foster, naming Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Billy Joe Shaver. “I’m having a bad case of imposter syndrome.”
Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame Awards Show
Date: Feb. 25
Venue: ACL Live at the Moody Theater
Address: 310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd.
Showtime: 7:30 p.m.
Writing eight No. 1 country singles, and hitting that top spot as an artist twice, the 63-year-old Foster has earned the association’s honor. He’ll be joined onstage Saturday at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in Austin by Kacey Musgraves, the Nashville superstar who Foster hired as a backup singer when she was a 19-year-old starving in Austin.
“I told her, ‘Just because Austin was your heroes’ town doesn’t mean it’s your town,’” Foster says. After about a year on the road, where her showcase each night was singing the Mary Chapin-Carpenter part of Foster’s No. 1 hit “Nobody Wins,” Musgraves moved to Nashville, where her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, announced her arrival with fanfare.
Foster got to Music City from Sewanee: The University of the South, a small Episcopal liberal arts college in Tennessee that was his father John Radney Foster’s alma mater. Playing in bands since he was a freshman at Del Rio High, Foster got an informal group together at college to play covers in bars. One night after a gig in ’79, an older man touting Nashville connections approached the band.
“I knew all the songs you played but three of them,” the man said, quoting lyrics from the songs he hadn’t heard before. “Our guitar player wrote those!” was the answer. The man got Foster’s name and number.
About a week later, Foster got a call from Brown Bannister, so hot at the time as Amy Grant’s writer and producer. Summoned to Nashville, he played some songs for Bannister, whose positive reaction was encouraging. “I said, ‘Are any of them hits?’ and he said, ‘No—but they’re a lot better than what I wrote when I was 20,’” Foster says.
After his junior year, Foster dropped out of Sewanee (later, he fulfilled a promise to his parents and returned for his degree) and eventually got a job writing songs for the Nashville publishing arm of MTM Enterprises, owned by Mary Tyler Moore.
“I brought them about 25 to 30 songs, but the only one they liked was one I hadn’t even finished yet,” he says. That was “Texas in 1880,” a song about freedom and courage that’s become an anthem of the Texas-Oklahoma “red dirt country” crowd. It came to him as he began the 1,100-mile drive from Del Rio to Nashville in 1980. Just before he set off on the adventure of a lifetime, a neighbor told him to watch out for the music business. “Like rodeo it’ll get in your blood and you can’t get it out,” she said. Foster thought about that for a long time, then pulled over in Sabinal in Uvalde County to get down the first verse.
It would be almost six years before he finished the song and recorded it in 1986 for his first album as half of Foster & Lloyd on RCA. A professional rodeo cowboy from Del Rio named Llewellyn Rust inspired the song’s ending. “He looked like any other rancher, but then you’d see his rodeo national champion belt buckle and he became someone special,” Foster says. (Today, Rust develops rodeo champions as the longtime head rodeo coach at Ranger College.)
Other inductees to the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame on Saturday will be Alejandro Escovedo, W.C. Clark, Rodney Clawson, and Gary P. Nunn. On hand for the ceremony will be Foster’s mother, Bette, who lives in San Antonio, as well as his wife, Cyndi, and their three adult children.
Missing will be Foster’s two greatest musical influences: his father, a guitar-playing lawyer who passed away in 2008, and Moises “Blondie” Calderon, the longtime Ray Price bandleader who Foster knew first as the owner of Memo’s Mexican restaurant, located by the San Felipe Creek in Del Rio. Multi-instrumentalist Calderon, who passed away in 2000, mentored and encouraged Foster when the kid got bit hard by the music bug, and his father could show him only so much.
“I asked my father if he could show me how to play ‘This Masquerade’ by George Benson,” recalls Foster. “That sounds like jazz,” the senior Foster told him. “I can’t show you, but Blondie can.”
“Whatever recognition I get is greatly appreciated,” Foster says, “But the time I first felt like I’d made it was when I heard ‘Crazy Over You’ on the jukebox at Memo’s.” Since Foster’s first hit single was credited to Foster & Lloyd, no one at Memo’s knew the kid singing was the shy 14-year-old boy Blondie had to practically push onto the stage on Tuesday night jam sessions at the restaurant in Del Rio.