For many touring performers, the merchandise table is part social club, part shopping mall. For country and bluegrass acts playing clubs and theaters, such duality is often magnified. It becomes a place where audience and artist can mingle over conversation and the hopeful sale of a CD or T-shirt.
Radney Foster knows the merch table well. Night after night, the veteran country/Americana songsmith would listen as his fans dug through the goods in search of his first — and what many think is still his finest — solo album. Each time, Foster had to sheepishly reply that he didn't have any copies to sell. Nobody did. The record, Del Rio, Texas 1959, has long been out of print.
But fan demand triggered an idea, one that would allow Foster to fashion new music out of his earliest solo work and honor a career milestone in the process.
"For about the last 12 years, that record has been out of print," said Foster, who performs a solo acoustic concert Thursday at Natasha's Bistro & Bar. "I had to fight even to get BMG (the music conglomerate that absorbed Foster's '90s-era record label, Arista Nashville) to keep it up on iTunes. And yet, I couldn't get them to let me reprint it.
"I'd be standing there signing autographs at the end of a show at the merchandise booth, and not a night would go by that someone wouldn't go, 'Oh, do you have a copy of Del Rio, Texas 1959?' And I would have to go, 'No. It's not available." So I thought, 'Man, I've got to rectify this in some way.'"
So Foster decided to go the route numerous artists have taken when trying to satisfy audience cravings for recordings that are legally or logistically out of their reach. He recorded the Del Rio songs again for an album he has full ownership of. But there was also a personal slant to giving a new voice to his old songs. With 2012 marking 20 years since the record's initial release — as well as Foster's start as a solo artist after a successful run in the country duo Foster & Lloyd — a new Del Rio album would serve as means of celebration.
But re-creating the original Del Rio album was not the intention. Foster wanted his new project to have a sound and intent of its own. So he rerecorded the original album's 10 titles in a stripped-down, bluegrass-leaning acoustic setting, came up with a new running order for the tunes and slipped a new song (Me and John R.) in the middle. The result was a critically lauded recording called Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome.
"I've seen what can happen when an artist goes into the studio to completely redo an album exactly as it was done the first time," he said. "It's usually a disaster. So I started talking with my friend Steve Fishell (producer of the original Del Rio record who now oversees the Music Producers Institute in Nashville) and told him about doing this project as a sort of a live bluegrass thing. And he was like, 'Why don't you come to the Institute and record it live to tape in front of some of my students.' And I thought, 'Wow. That is a great idea.' And that's exactly what we did. Everything was done basically by sitting in a circle — open microphones, no headphones, trying to capture the sound of the whole band all at once."
For Foster, whose songs have been covered by such Nashville celebs as Keith Urban, Sara Evans and Gary Allan since the first Del Rio was issued, the opportunity to shift the musical setting was only half of the fun. Revisited also meant excavating the emotions and story lines of songs written during a different chapter in his life.
"That's very true in some ways," Foster said. "But in another way, it was like visiting old friends again.
"There are certainly songs in there that I'm very proud of. A good example is A Fine Line. It was this sort of Springsteen-esque rocker on the first record. And my co-producer this time (Justin Tocket) was just adamant that the song should be a ballad. 'These are such devastating lyrics. The arrangement needs to be all about the lyrics and less about the musicians.' So we kept slowing it down and trying different things. And, finally, I started fingerpicking the song. And he was right. It came out fantastic.
"When I've done it live, audiences have just been crushed. There are even people crying. And I'm like, 'Cool. I used to make people dance. Now I make them cry.'"