OPEN YOUR EARS AND LISTEN (Fred Foster, R.I.P.)

Country Music Hall of Famer Fred Foster had a long and varied career as a producer, talent scout, and label owner. His main labels, Monument and Sound Stage 7 (a rare Nashville-based soul label), were among the most successful and important of their era, the era when independent labels had more success and importance than ever before or since. His contributions to American music included jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Dean, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (with whom he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee”) while his labels gave a home to the likes of Tony Joe White and Joe Simon.

But his greatest moment came when he head something in Roy Orbison’s voice which had escaped the ears of record men as formidable as Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins. By the time Orbison signed with Foster’s Monument label in Nashville in 1960, he had, as the saying goes, been kicked out of all the best places in town and was scraping by as a contract songwriter for the country publishing giant Acuff-Rose. With Foster (and songwriter Joe Melson) Roy was able to fashion this:

It got just enough attention to allow a little experimenting on the next record, which was only this…

…which set Roy Orbison on the path to being one of the biggest stars of the era and gave him a grip on the souls of the lonely that will last until the day we’re officially outlawed.

Elvis had been offered the demo of “Only the Lonely” and took a pass. When he heard Oribson’s finished product on the radio he immediately ordered boxes of the 45 and began handing them out to anyone who would listen.

That’s how much difference Fred  Foster made. He passed away on Feb. 20, at age 87.

ANOTHER PLACE AND ANOTHER TIME (Tony Joe White, R.I.P.)

Swamp Rock is now almost forgotten. Not the music, which was defined by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe South and a rotating cast of characters who drift in and out of the definitions provided by critics and cultists, but the moniker. I haven’t heard it referred to in years.

Back when it was referred to at least now and then in mainstream journals–and recognized as a key link in the chain that stretched from rockabilly to southern rock–nobody embodied it more fully than Tony Joe White. His moment was brief, maybe three years.

Well, people have said more in a career, but few said more in a moment. His one big hit as a performer was good enough even Elvis at his best couldn’t quite steal it…

But his greatest impact was as a writer…

…and a spirit who helped define the moment that defined him, the moment when the shore that had heaved in sight during the sixties began to fade away in the fog…

…a moment even the Persuasions at their best couldn’t quite steal from him.

Tony Joe White epitomized the sort of talent who could flourish only in Rock and Roll America. With that America in tatters, we’d do well to hang on to his memory.