A troubadour’s grand gesture

by Jordan Green

The first music he loved came from the Hank Williams and Johnny Cash records his grandmother kept. He memorized practically all of it, down to the patter between songs on Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash at San Quentin and Johnny Cash in the Holy Land. Later, in the 1970s, FM radio brought Al Green, Badfinger and Sly and the Family Stone. Giants strode the earth in those days, but then there were also the odd great singles by groups like America and Supertramp – all of it pleasing to the teenager’s ear.

“The big ones are the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Kinks,” Jeffrey Dean Foster says. “Those are on the upper shelf, although Bob Dylan’s on a shelf of his own.”

He adds, “I would listen to everything, whether it be ELO and the James Gang or Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Patti Smith Group. I didn’t think one should exclude the other. Most Lynyrd Skynyrd fans probably think that Lynyrd Skynyrd would kick Patti Smith’s ass, but I didn’t think that.”

Foster is one of Winston-Salem’s seminal musical talents, an earthy and sincere counterweight to Mitch Easter’s weird pop cipher. Easter is a little older than Foster, and their paths didn’t cross much in the ’70s, but all roads in North Carolina’s tight-knit music scene seem to intersect sooner or later. Easter plays pedal steel, bass and slide guitar respectively on three songs that grace Foster’s contemporary solo album, Million Star Hotel, and the album was mixed at Easter’s Fidelitorium in Kernersville.

The Right Profile, the band Foster formed at Appalachian State University back in the 1980s, took its name from a Clash song, but Foster’s tastes draw more from organic classic rock than incendiary punk.

“I love the Clash’s London Calling though,” he says. “London Calling is a big messy album like Blonde on Blonde or Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Twenty-five years ago, Million Star Hotel would have been a double album. I would have loved to have that great gatefold.”

At Ap State, Foster became a campus concert promoter. He booked Arrogance, and that’s when he got to know Don Dixon (who opens for Foster on Friday at the Garage). And he booked Steve Forbert.

“I didn’t go to school for two weeks after that, thinking about if I could do that,” he says. “That was the beginning of the Right Profile.”

That band traversed a lonely path, writing their own songs from the start.

“Our ambition far outstripped our talent,” Foster says. “If you’re starting out and you want to emulate the Buzzcocks, a poppy punk band, you can probably get away with it. But if you want to sound like the Band or the Rolling Stones you’re not going to come close.”

The band was signed by Arista, but the label never released a record for them.

There was another near miss with a band called the Carneys that recorded in New York and opened for Bob Dylan.

David Enloe, the guitar player from that band, died in Raleigh last month of complications from liver disease at the age of 50.

“It reminds you – not often do I feel old, too old to be playing music – it reminds me that twenty years is gone,” says Foster, who is now 47. “When you look back at playing with someone like that. I remember that stuff really well because we were very sober. For most of the years after that I didn’t see him, so the memory of those times is not blurred.”

It’s been more than two years now since the release of Million Star Hotel, an album five years in the making. A band called the Pinetops links the demise of the Carneys and the inception of Million Star Hotel.

“I started it after the Pinetops faded. I was living out in the woods and I had a recording studio in a barn,” Foster says. “I met the drummer who’s in the band now, Brian Landrum, and he pushed me to get it done.”

He recalls, “Some of the best moments are things I barely even remember doing, like when Cliff Retallick and I recorded ‘Milk and Honey.’ It was four in the morning. I was playing guitar for him just enough so he could play along on the piano. He doesn’t remember. I love it; it’s so dreamy.”

Million Star Hotel, its title clever street wit to describe homelessness, is a certifiable North Carolina classic by now even if it hasn’t been widely heard. No indigenous talent is ever given its due in this parochial backwater, and of course Jesus was rejected in his hometown.

In such a cultural moment when the recording industry is in mid-meltdown, when music clubs echo with ghostly silence and a great gulf exists between the corporate receptions and the scruffy house parties where most music is played these days, what does it really matter how many units are moved? If we could all do just one fine thing in our lives, we should – not for money and renown, but just for its own sake.

This album is that grand gesture of finery – a synthesis of the dream-haze of lost moments and emotional textures from those great ’70s acts that inspired the teenager all those years back: Electric Light Orchestra, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Patti Smith Group and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. There is hardly a misplaced stroke on the album: Retallick’s elegiac piano playing, the lonely martial rhythm of the snare drum, the melancholy swirl of trumpet and Wurlitzer on “Milk and Honey.” The snarl of electric guitar on “Little Priest.” The soaring harmonies, the discrete pedal steel courtesy of Mitch Easter, the angelic voice of Lynn Blakey promising “I feel your troubles slipping away,” and the unexpected classic rock crescendo of “The Summer of the Son of Sam.” The twilight insect noises. The shimmering rock-and-roll thrall and transcendence mixed with resignation of “Lost in My Own Town.”

Foster received a phone call from his old friend and advisor Don Dixon, after Dixon had assessed the fruits of his labor.

“He said, ‘Foster, I come armed with the facts; do you realize that your record is longer than Meet the Beatles and Neil Young’s Harvest?” the artist recalls. “I’m glad I kept it long. People that have listened to it say they like that it’s a heavy dose.”

He half-jokes: “I am kind of partial to these big sprawling messes. I think maybe I’m getting old and may not make another record. I need to put it all out there. I may not live to make another one.”

But he will, of course.

A painter of houses as a matter of earning a living, he stays with his music like a doting husband. He recently played a gig at the Pour House in Raleigh where he joined the Backsliders on stage to sing a song of his they love called “The Bells.” On a recent day of unseasonable December warmth, the spacious room he rents at the O’Hanlon Building in downtown Winston-Salem is suffused with the sounds of Regina Hexaphone, whose frontwoman Sara Bell is also playing in Foster’s Birds of Prey now. And of course he’ll be reunited with Dixon, who will be down from Ohio to join the Birds of Prey at the Garage on Friday.

Foster’s face bears the crease lines of age and experience, but retains an undiminished purity of eagerness. And he has this new song, unrecorded as of yet, called “Morningside.” Played with spare economy on an acoustic guitar, the song conveys a mixture of bitterness and nostalgia, succeeding both as a metaphorical lodestone and as concrete historical account.

The songs keep coming in a persistent flow.

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