The Country Music Hall of Fame announced the 2016 inductees this past March, and to the seasoned country music fan, two names jump right out: Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis. But a third nominee — Fred Foster — is easily the most “monumental” of them all.
(Those familiar with Foster hopefully just appreciated the “monumental” pun).
Daniels was a new kind of country bad boy. He earned it the hard way, writing songs and earning a reputation as a killer instrumentalist before blowing up with 1979’s CMA “Song of the Year.” That song, of course, is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”
Meanwhile, Travis ushered in a second golden age of country music, of sorts. His albums in the mid-1980s through 1990s reinvigorated the traditional country fan base. Along with acts like George Strait, Randy Travis basically saved classic country from the 80s.
But both of them, in many ways, owe some of their success to the influence of Fred Foster.
A Poor Carolina Boy With An Ear For Talent
Foster grew up in North Carolina on his parents’ farm. He left for Washington D.C. at age 17 to make something of himself in the booming recording industry. And in 1953, he found a job working for Mercury Records in distribution and promotion, eventually rising to be head of country promotion.
Even at a young age, Foster knew what a hit record sounded like. In fact, he almost ushered in the biggest signing in music history. One day while driving, Foster heard a then unknown Elvis Presley’s song “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” on the radio. He immediately pulled over and then headed to the radio station to ask the DJ who it was.
He called Mercury marketing director Art Talmadge and pleaded with him to buy Presley’s contract. Talmadge didn’t quite hear what all the fuss was about (he even asked, “What kind of a name is that?”), but he went with an offer for the contract. Fosters says Talmadge then called him a few days later saying there’s no way he’d pay what businessman Sam Phillips wanted — $50,000. Talmadge’s highest offer was $35,000.
“I said, ‘Art, you can give him $500,000, it won’t matter, you’ll make it back on the first record,'” Foster says. “He said, ‘You’re insane.’ I said, ‘Possibly, never had to debate that, but I know what I’m telling you.'”
Talmadge never went above $35,000. Elvis’ contract went to RCA for $40,000, and the rest is history. Oh, and Mercury definitely would’ve made that money back on the first record.
Building His Own Label
Foster eventually left to start his own label where he could call the shots. Spending his entire life savings, Foster started Monument Records and Combine Publishing in Baltimore. A year later, he moved to Nashville, which he preferred over New York City. Ironically, his first office was Sam Phillips’ former Sun Records office.
Foster had an ear for talent, but he also had an immense respect for the songwriters. That’s what led him to sign his greatest acts, the first of which was the revolutionary Roy Orbison. Foster and Orbison created a formidable team that dominated the early 60s with Orbison’s mix of country and rock n’ roll.
Of course Orbison was a great writer, but Foster also brought out the most in Orbison’s timid personality. He surrounded Orbison with lush arrangements and choral backup singers. It brought out the best in him, whether he was singing a song he wrote or somebody else’s music.
Taking Risks On Talent
Foster took what the rest of the town considered to be risks on the talent he signed. He liked the songwriters most labels wouldn’t touch because of their unconventional voices.
“If your artist can write, you don’t have to go out and break your back searching for a hit,” Foster recently told Billboard. “Plus, I also wanted someone that was readily identifiable, that didn’t sound like anybody else. If you’ll notice, all those people, you know them immediately.”
That philosophy led him to sign Kris Kristofferson, who many saw as untouchable as an artist. The pair wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” together and Kristofferson’s first album produced by Foster is a country music staple. Foster signed and developed Dolly Parton and released her first record in 1967.
Larry Gatlin, Billy Joe Shaver and Tony Joe White all found a home with Monument’s “unique songwriter first” philosophy. Foster helped usher in the careers of others, too, like Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Ray Stevens (whom he convinced to do serious songs in addition to comedy).
He also invested heavily in up-and-coming session musicians, many of whom were a bit more unorthodox (and a bit cheaper) than the other studio cats in town. Some of them, like Charlie McCoy, when on to become the most famous “Nashville Cats” in town.
After Foster eventually sold Monument and his publishing company, he continued to find success as a producer. In 2008, he won a Grammy for his work with Willie Nelson and Ray Price on the album Last of a Breed.
Without a doubt, Foster’s championing songwriters as artists widened the door for artists like Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis, whose greatest assets were always their unique artistic voice.
The trio brings the Hall of Fame’s number of inductees to 130. It’s always heartening to see figures like Foster — as much a living legend as Kristofferson or Nelson — live to see such a distinguished honor. He never played by the rules, and as a result, country music was better for it.