By Brent Thompson
Photo courtesy of the artist
Frank Foster’s musical style is characterized by honest lyrics and a straightforward country sound. Equally key to his story is the manner in which he has forged his career. The singer/songwriter is fiercely independent, acting as his own manager, publisher, publicist and record label owner. The formula has translated into both chart and critical success for the Louisiana native and Tennessee resident. In September 2018, Foster released ‘Til I’m Gone, his seventh album and fourth release on his label, Lone Chief Records. On FRIDAY, JULY 26, Foster will perform at IRON CITY. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his Lynnville, Tenn. home.
Frank, you reside on a farm outside of Nashville – that setup sounds like the best of both worlds.
Yeah, man, it’s perfect. I grew up in North Louisiana, way out in the country, and I gravitate towards that kind of living. Nashville is cool, but that’s a lot of lights [laughs].
‘Til I’m Gone, may be new to the public, but you have lived with these songs for quite some time.
Like you said, before it comes out to the public, I’ve written it, recorded it and listened to it a thousand times, but new music is always fun to put out. The way we do things is grassroots, so a lot of people today probably just found out about this album, and that’s what’s cool about it. You can see the growth and popularity of it on the road as you tour the album.
How did the album’s body of material take shape?
I have a two-year-old now, so the days of trying to write a song on the porch every evening are gone. I’m not the kind of guy who tries to write throughout the year and put that burden on myself. The way that I’ve done it is to set aside two to three weeks, take off, and write. I’ll try to write the album one through ten, and that’s the way I did this last one. I think there’s a song on there – the “Homebody Ramblin’ Man Blues” – that I wrote a long time ago. Every time I go through the process of writing an album, there’s always four or five [songs] that don’t make it, and you always keep them dragging around waiting on the right album, and I thought that it fit this album pretty good. But the other nine I wrote in a span of two to three weeks in early 2018.
I assume your writing method keeps the songs fresh as you don’t belabor them before recording them.
That’s very true, and it’s exciting for the band, too. It’s not something they’ve heard me try to write on the bus for six months. It’s exciting for them to come in and say, “Let’s work on these three today.” My band records my albums with me, which in our industry is a rarity. You know, there’s a thing in Nashville called “studio musicians” and people who make their living doing that. That’s all well and good, but my band is like family and having that studio experience with me is something they may not get to have anywhere else. I’ve always thought that if a guy is good enough to play on the road, then why isn’t he good enough to play in the studio? If a guy does a guitar solo in the studio and he gets to go out and deliver that to the people, that’s like me delivering my lyrics of my songs. He takes pride in it, and he’s not a hired gun.
Does that recording process enable last-minute tweaks in the studio?
Yeah, absolutely. Stylistically, those guys get to put their imprint on things. They understand, “Frank wrote these lyrics and the melody’s his, but I can throw something in that will totally change the direction of the song.” They’ve got skin in the game now, and they’re not being a robot for me. They’re in there with ideas, and that makes their creative process a lot more fun.
With several albums in your catalog, how do you construct your setlists these days?
It’s hard. We’ve got 73 songs, and you can’t play but about 20. We have those that we have to play, and in the middle of the set, we have five to eight songs we try to keep fresh.
You have found success as an independent artist. If you will, talk about the career path you have taken to this point.
I moved up to Nashville and found out really quick that it is a who-you-know type of town and I didn’t know a soul. My wife and I said, “We’re here. Let’s dig in and let’s figure it out on our own,” and that’s what we did. I started going to writers’ nights and met a couple of guys. Long story short, one of the guys knew a guy who had a makeshift studio, so that’s where I recorded my first two albums.
I wanted to get out of the oil industry – I was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and I wanted to make a living playing music. Instead of wasting time going to every label in town and begging them to sign Frank Foster, I said, “Let’s get a band, a U-Haul trailer, and let’s go play for anybody who will listen.” That’s how we built our fanbase and, once we started having success, I quit my job and we started riding buses.
The labels started calling, and I said, “I’ve got social media, I’ve got a growing fanbase, and I know that in the long run I’m sacrificing some money and some fame, some CMAs and ACMs [awards], but I’m making an unbelievable living.”
I’m my own boss – If I want to go on the road, I go; If I don’t, I don’t. It’s just turned out to be the best possible scenario I could ever imagine. I’ve got friends in the industry – I won’t call any names – that are signed to record labels. I bump into them a few times a year on the road, and they’re like, “Golly dude, you’ve got it figured out. I wish I would’ve done that.” They’re on TV, and they’re way more famous than Frank Foster, but they’re so damn tired. They’ve got 50 people to pay, and I’ve got about five or six. Labels send boys out on the road with three or four buses and two tractor trailers – you don’t need all of that to make people like music. It looks good, but it also costs a lot of dang money. Until you get all of that paid back, the artist doesn’t get a thing. I just made my decision a long time ago, and I think we’ve got something great here and it’s very unique.
Without a large staff surrounding you, how do you juggle all that is required of a touring artist?
It takes a team. For six years, my wife was on the road with me – she was tour managing, booking the hotels, selling all the merchandise and settling up at the end of the night with the clubs. She still does everything except go on the road. Outside of that, every guy in my band has a little bit of responsibility outside of playing music, and that’s worked out good. They enjoy it – it gives them the opportunity to learn sides of the business they would’ve never learned. We run a family business, basically.