h, the rigors of Fan Fair week in Nashville. Radney Foster joined in the fray this year to promote "Are You Ready for the Big Show?," an album of old and new material recorded live at the Continental Club in Austin.
"It's exhausting," Foster says of Music City's annual event, but after driving home on the highway past "guys layin' asphalt in 90-degree weather," he decides "my job's not that bad."
The rootsy, textured sound on Foster's latest is the most current in a series of musical evolutions. The singer-songwriter-producer, who was half of eighties country-rock duo Foster & Lloyd, recorded a couple of what he calls "attempts at mainstream country records"- "Del Rio, TX 1959" (with hits "Just Call Me Lonesome" and "Nobody Wins") and "Labor of Love" - in the early nineties.
In 1998, Foster released "See What You Want to See," an introspective, mature pop album that was a dramatic shift from its country predecessors "borne out of the craziness of divorce" and "the joy of a new marriage," says Foster.
Now, he's back with "Big Show" on the new DualTone label, again with a different sound. Drawing on mandolin and acoustic bass, Foster went for "a bluegrassy feel," but then went beyond that, adding a B-3 organ and slide guitar to create a sound that's more of a "bluesy... Louisiana thing."
Foster has employed the help of an eclectic group of musicians on his most recent endeavor.
Chris Thile, mandolin player for Nickel Creek, who opened for Foster last year, appears on "Big Show."
"I don't know what it's like to be 20 years old and the best mandolin player on the planet," Foster says of the precocious musician.
Matt Thompson of the Thompson Bros. plays a variety of found objects as "drums." Also joining Foster are Jeff Armstrong on the B-3, Byron House on bass, Mike McAdam on slide guitar and Ashley Arrison on vocals. The group puts new spins on old numbers and debuts five new tunes.
"I get bored easily, and I have a very short attention span," Foster jokes, when asked how his musical style has jumped from one classification to another, or sidestepped category altogether over the years.
"I think the best artists have always evolved," he explains. They maintain, however, a "thread" that marks their music as distinctly theirs. "It's changed, but it's still the same guy," Foster says.
He also acknowledges the audience's expection of change from their favorite performers.
The instrumentation on "Big Show" was a conscious effort at a fresh sound to keep both performer and audience interested. "I had an idea about it...that comes from being a producer," he explains.
Because the majority of the new album consists of previously recorded material and because it was recorded live, Foster wanted to find a way to make the songs sound new, not like mere reproductions of studio takes.
"My favorite live records always had some element of surprise...that excitement of being at a show," Foster says.
It's that very excitement he wished to capture when recording "Big Show" - that, and the freshness and immediacy that comes with blurring musical boundaries, something that's easier to do live than in the recording studio.
Foster points to the more poppy sound of Foster & Lloyd and the honky-tonkness of his subsequent solo albums and notes, "In my shows I've always tried to bridge the gap betwen those diversities." He enjoys a range of styles, including rock, folk, country and "very roots-oriented" music, and "live was me trying to pull it all together," he says.
To prepare for the record, the band played five or six gigs in Austin and "then recorded two nights at the Continental Club," Foster says. He describes the club as "an Austin institution" and "one of my favorite places to play in the whole wide world." He is also a fan of "Shoeshine Charlie" Miller, the man who has introduced Foster at the club since he was with Lloyd. The album was titled for Miller's standard introduction, "Are you ready for the big show?" and the man himself shows up on the album to introduce Foster to cd listeners.
Miller, like the club, is "an institution," in Foster's view. Recording in front of a Texas audience was just as important as the venue for Foster. "That's home," says the Del Rio native, "and my biggest following is down there."
Releasing a live album is, as Foster readily admits, a "quicker way to get something back out to the fans" than recording an entire album in the studio. Since radio stations are more reluctant to play live cuts, Foster included two studio tracks on to increase airplay: "Tonight," a live version of which opens the album, and the Foster & Lloyd tune "Texas in 1880," a duet with fellow Lone Star State musician Pat Green. The latter has already charted in Texas, which has given the album more attention than Foster anticipated. "It looks like the darn thing's taken off," he says.