There’s a stigma against country music. Everyone has the same assumption—a twangy assortment of half-clothed women, guns, and an unusual, unnatural love for one’s truck set over a backdrop of rolling wheat fields and cattle herds. And those assumptions lead to changing the radio station at the first hint of mandolin—something I am guilty of too. And while there is certainly country music that fits that description, there’s a whole other side to the genre that is often ignored, set to sunsets over the open plains, a deep sense of family, and, often, a longing for something more. The evening’s acoustic set, headlined by Radney Foster, captured the longing of a quirky small town life, and how that deep sense of belonging, while comfortable and familiar, can sometimes be strangling.
The evening began with a set by Luke Martin, a long-haired man who reminded me vaguely of a wood elf. The stage was set as a living room, complete with an armchair and side table with a pitcher of water. He languished on a wooden stool and seemed very comfortable with the guitar in his hands. He sang of longing and of love, set to a masterfully finger-picked acoustic backdrop. His slight lean and big eyes only lended to the aura he cast, of desire and a fierce compassion. After all, as he sang, “it ain’t no use being alone, this I know."
Now, back in the day, Radney Foster was quite a star—if you’ve ever been to a Southern state and listened to the radio, are familiar with the 90’s Americana, or frequent the country stations on Spotify, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the likes of “Don’t Call Me Lonesome” or “Nobody Wins,” both of which are songs that traditionally have a traditional, big band ‘country’ element. At the Fremont Abbey Arts, however, it was just Foster and his guitar.
Foster took the same stool Martin had sat on and perched over the mic with a preening wisdom and a sense of integration—as he sang, it felt like he was looking directly at me. This deep personal notion pervaded the night—the small audience, tiny stage, and acoustic setting lended to the sense of privacy and kinship between Foster and the audience.
Foster opened with a few remarks, spoken in a Texas twang that added to his validity as a country star, and got right into "For You to See the Stars," a song about finding light, your own stars, in the darkness. With a shock of white hair and dressed simply, Foster reminded me of my grandpa, and that sense of familiar comfort followed me throughout the night.
I could remark on Foster’s technical skill—he wore a thumbpick and rarely missed strings as he played, but that level of skill is to be expected from someone who’s been singing and playing so long. What truly struck me is how deeply he seemed to feel what he was saying—that first song really did make me remember that sometimes, “it’s gotta get dark enough for you to see the stars."
Hope was a theme of the night, and, I would argue, a common theme of good country. It’s easy to marvel at the world when you can walk outside and see a spread of brilliant stars right above your head, punctuated by fireflies and a soft breeze. Foster knows that setting all too well, and it shows.
Between songs, Foster would joke and tell stories from his long career. There is a reason, though, that he’s back on tour, and that reason is his collection of short stories. A few songs in, Foster put aside his guitar and read a story about the day Kennedy was assassinated, which he insinuated had a semi-autobiographical element.
I’m not implying that the night had any sort of somber tone. Most of the stories linked pretty closely to the mood of the song that followed, and like the songs, they varied in tone — one was about love, another about a boy trying to escape from his small-town life.
I found his stories and songs to be honest reflections on country life, and certain elements closely match my experience. Having lived in a little podunk Oklahoma town, and especially having lived there temporarily, I know the distinct mood of the deep South, and how difficult it can be to capture the way of life there.
Palatable country is something we sorely need more of, for country music is the native tongue of an entire section of America. Foster’s acoustic set and stories distilled the values of good country—that sense of belonging and of longing, a wonder at the world, and a deep sense of hope.
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