I love well written songs. Not songs that are just fun to sing in the car, but those that tell a story. I’m talking about songs that transport you somewhere else for a moment and have character, depth, and a plot. Songs where you look up and not only have you missed your exit, but you don’t remember passing it and now there’s a cop behind you with his lights on.
Songs by song writers like Darrell Scott,
Daddy sits on the front porch swingin' Looking out at a vacant field Used to be filled with Burley tobacco Now he knows it never will My brother's found work in Indiana Sister's a nurse at the old folks home Mama's still cooking too much for supper And me, I've been a long time gone
And they kissed each other And they turned around And they saw me standing in the aisle Well I did not say much I just stood there watching As that .45 told them goodbye
and Jimmy Buffett.
On the corner of Government and Bay Avenue The old doomsday fanatic wore a crown of Kudzu Sirens were wailing in the gulf coastal heat And it seemed like the whole world was in forced retreat I paid no attention, revolved through the door Passed the newspaper racks on the worn marble floor Near Civil War history my heart skipped a beat She was standing in fiction stretched high on bare feet
I’ve often wondered about where these songs come from and if there’s more to the story than could fit in the song itself. I’m curious about the process that the songwriter goes through and have wondered if the story or the song comes first.
Radney Foster is one such singer/songwriter and in late 2015 he became so ill that he was not only unable to sing, but unable to speak for a period of months. During this time Foster began questioning his future.
Losing your voice for that long is an existential crisis for a singer. I had a Come-to-Jesus moment while stoned on cough medicine.
What if I can’t ever sing again? What do I do for a living? Who am I?
I am a storyteller.
How can I tell stories if I can’t sing?
In that moment Radney Foster decided to write a short story based on one of his new songs. That became another and another and now we have For You to See the Stars: A Collection of Short Stories by Radney Foster that complements his album by the same name.
For You to See the Stars contains ten short stories. At the end of each is a recommended song from the album. I went back and forth, book, album, book, album. In some cases the connection is direct, while in others more subtle. In every case, though, you can see the thoughtful relationship between the two. The book and album each work on their own but the sum is greater than the parts.
The stories themselves run the gamut and contain the themes you would expect from a songwriter such as Radney Foster. Love lost and found. Broken families and the healing of them. There are unexpected stories here too, like one about an ex-CIA operative under identity protection in New Orleans and another I can only describe as a dystopian rant that may also have been written while stoned on cough-medicine.
The opening story, “For You to See the Stars,” is a beautifully written tale about a young man reuniting with his estranged maternal grandfather in the aftermath of his father’s death. This story, set in the Big Bend area, moved me to tears more than once. It’s painful and sad, but it’s mostly tender and loving. The story and song title, “For You to See the Stars,” is repeated in the story,
Finally, Joaquin broke the silence. “It’s gotta get dark enough for you to see the stars.”
How could that not end up as a line in a country song?
The story, “Isabel” is another favorite, mixing a white collar mid-life crisis with fly fishing, and faith among a well written love story.
“I’ve always been a numbers and logic kind of guy. I like things cut and dry…the law. You look at life and it’s blurry…but you’re good with that. You ask me questions that have so many different angles but never say any of my answers are wrong.”
“Well, actually…most of your answers are way off base,” she teased, “but it wouldn’t be right for me to tell you ‘you’re wrong.’ Seriously…it’s not my job. I know the right answer fore me but my path isn’t yours. Jesus told us to love one another how we wish to be loved. Pretty simple, right?”
“Well, kind of. I’m not that sort of guy. I like solid answers.”
“Ahhh, you want God to be an equation. God is a poem.”
That story, and that last line in particular, set me off on a day of contemplating my own existence and how I view the world. If that’s not an indication of good writing, I don’t know what is.
The ending story, “Sycamore Creek,” is similarly moving but much more poignant. This one is about teenage love and dreams ending, in some cases tragically while in others, hopefully. This story line tracks much closer to the song than most of the others, but it opened up the aperture in ways that I’ve longed for in the best songs. I’d like to write or talk more about this one but I’m so afraid of giving away the carefully crafted twists and turns in the story that I’m forced to hold back. The one thing I will say is that this is a story that could have come straight from the pages of Becky Crouch Patterson’s The Ranch That Was Us. If you read it, I’m more than happy to discuss it with you over a beverage. It needs to be discussed.
In the end, Foster gave me exactly what I was hoping for. He expanded the stories behind well written songs I’ve come to love in such a way as to let me further into his mind, while expanding the mental picture I’d already created. It is my sincerest hope that other singer/songwriters will follow Foster’s lead. It is also my hope that For You to See the Stars is just the beginning of short fiction from Radney Foster.
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