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Time is on Jeffrey Dean Foster’s side

by John Adamian

Winston-Salem singer/songwriter plays a benefit for the Shalom Project

Jeffrey Dean Foster has written songs while doing all kinds of things. The Winston-Salem singer and songwriter doesn’t much like setting aside special time to focus on the writing process. So he keeps busy and waits for an idea to come to him. He’s shaped lyrical tidbits or melodic nuggets while painting houses, which is what he did as a dayjob for a while.

“I’ve written songs while I was just by myself, painting — it afforded me some quiet. I’ve written songs just doing odd things. I think I’m not very good at sitting down to write,” he says.

Foster even once wrote a song — pretty much finished the whole thing in his head — while playing solo full-court basketball at the old YMCA in Winston-Salem.

Foster, who’s been making roots-tinged powerpop in the area since the ’80s, likes to get outside and move around, to keep the circuits firing. The upcoming benefit for the Shalom Project is a convergence of his daytime breadwinner routine and his nighttime dude-singing-onstage role. Foster has played several benefits for the Shalom Project over the years — for the Winston-Salem-based charity’s AIDS care service and other initiatives — but this time around he’s working double-duty for the organization, having taken a position as program director with the non-profit earlier this year.

“They’re just a great place, because everything that goes to them goes right back out into the community,” says Foster. “The show’s just a regular show, costs $12 to get in, but if you bring some gloves, or a blanket, or some cold-weather gear, you can get in for half price.”

Another hometown rock music statesman, Peter Holsapple, of the dBs, is also on the bill.

There’s history to the pairing. “I’ve just known Peter since I was real young,” says Foster. “I knew him when he was in the dBs. My first band played with the dBs a lot.”

Foster and his band will be performing material drawn largely from his excellent 2014 record The Arrow.

There have been studies that suggest that sad songs somehow make people happy. That might be true. And Foster doesn’t totally steer away from teardrops in the beer. But one of his skills seems to be in writing songs that feather in just enough wistful sadness and regret without bogging down the emotional balance.

“I like sad songs, but you don’t want a whole album full of them, necessarily,” says Foster.

The same might be said about music that’s full of pep and good cheer: Too much uplift can be a little sticky. Foster, 55, walks that line with skill.

The first line on the opening track from The Arrow goes like this: “Life is sweet, but it doesn’t last.” Which is maybe equal parts feel-good and feel-bad, pouring a little sugar before the punch.

The brevity of our time here among the living can be a bummer to ponder, but it can just as often spur a sense of joy and a deeper urge to make the most of it while we can. There’s rebirth and clear-eyed contentment after the moldering, perhaps. Time is a timeless subject. The theme of blink-and-youmiss-it has been around forever, which is proof of its durability.

“It is a lot to do with mortality and time flying by,” says Foster about the main concepts flowing through his recent record. “It is all honest stuff.”

Another song off The Arrow, “The Lucky One,” pivots on a very adult realization about the risks that we sometimes don’t consider much when we’re young but which linger in retrospect and cause some head-scratching and disbelief when we get older. It’s a love song, of sorts, but one of survival and thanksgiving as well.

If the emotional tenor of the songs seems familiar, so too might some of the sonic blueprint. It’s not hard to hear the musical DNA of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Big Star, Steve Forbert, Fleetwood Mac, the Jayhawks and Wilco threaded through Foster’s songs. That’s a way of saying that Foster makes music that conveys a sense of understanding its own history, of not condescending to the simple and enduring pleasures of straight-forward lyrics, harmony, a chugging guitar and a driving beat.

Driving, locomotion, propulsion, and the burning of fossil fuel are subjects that pop up in Foster’s songs. Motion, movement and distance are like the spatial cousins of the themes of mortality, change, and the fleeting nature of time.

“I’m losing power/I’m losing steam/When I step on the gas all I do is dream” goes the chorus on “All I Do Is Dream,” from Foster’s 2005 release, Million Star Hotel.

In talking about how to arrive at the sweet spot with a song””both in terms of writing and editing and in terms of rehearsing and recording””Foster says he tries to be careful not to over-polish or overthink.

“You can play a song to death to where everything is perfect but you’ve driven past where it’s good,” says Foster.

Foster says he’s conscious of there being a special kind of mystery to the songs he likes best, pointing to “rare singles that were strange and bittersweet” that he heard as a kid on AM radio and that always had something that was “slightly against the grain.”

“You can’t manufacture mystery, but you can kind of edit yourself a little, and just know when to stop. We try to do that with the music, but not labor over it,” says Foster. “The songs that I Iove are ones where you really can’t figure out what they’re about.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

Jeffrey Dean Foster and The Yes Men play The Garage, Friday, Dec. 11, with Peter Holsapple, 110 West 7th St., Winston-Salem, 336-777-1127, www.the-garage.ws. The Yes Men are Rick Randall (The Alternative Champs), Britt Harper Uzzell (Snuzz) and Brooks Carter (Bandway). Anyone that brings a pack of two or more pairs of warm socks will get into the show half price. Winter gloves and hats will also be accepted.

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