Monument Records founder Fred Foster was recently in the hospital for quadruple bypass surgery after a heart attack, and as painful as that news was, it seemed like a good moment to look back at someone who had an impact on Nashville for three decades-in terms of widening the city's musical base. Nashville of the 1990s has searched for a similar monumental figure, mostly in vain, ever since.
Foster founded Monument Records and its powerful publishing arm, Combine Music, in 1958, and the label became one of the most successful independents ever. That achievement was all the more remarkable because its best years in the 1970s were dominated by the emergence of the musical monoliths such as WEA, and because Foster based the label in Nashville (although it was named, in a moment of inspiration from the window of an airplane, for the Washington Monument in D.C.). The label was as much a pop venture as it was country, and in the process, changed the business of country mAusic.
The discography of Monument is extensive and included, most notably, Roy orbison and Kris Kristofferson, artists who shook country's aesthetic sensibilities and Nashville's business practices, as well as Ray Stevens, Boots Randolph, Charlie McCoy, Tommy Roe and the Gatlin Brothers. Foster signed them, produced their records and, in general, rattled Nashville's cage. That iconoclasm gained him little sympathy in the 1980s, when a series of bad investments led to the loss of the label (the catalog is now owned by Sony) and much else.
Monument had its own studios in Nashville, and-like Norbert Putnam, that other gentleman outlaw who built a pop music empire under the noses of Music Row-Foster launched his vision of what Nashville could be.
I got to talk to Foster a couple of years ago while researching a book, and as the proverbial lion in winter, he remained feisty. Always fascinated by country music, Foster began working as a regional sales rep for Mercury Records in 1954 when country was being challenged by defections to rockabilly. on a trip to Texas in 1956, Foster reported back to Mercury's Nashville chief of marketing that, while one Mercury country artist had sold 52 copies of a single at San Antonio's largest retailer, Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" had sold 15,000 units in ten days. Foster's boss didn't want to hear about it. "He calls me back and says I'm a traitor, that I'd fallen in with the Indians and the Mexicans, and what the hell was this rock 'n' roll stuff anyway?" Foster said. "I quit on the spot."
But it was Roy orbison who put Foster and Monument on the map. Publisher/producer Wesley Rose, owner of Acuff-Rose Music, brought the Texas singer to Foster in late 1959, mainly, Foster said, because he knew he had something in orbison but wasn't sure where he fit into country music. orbison had been produced by Chet Atkins on RCA, but with little success. "Wesley said I could have Roy for Monument on the condition that I make him sound the way Chet did on RCA, because Wesley liked that sound, even if it didn't sell records," he recalled.
Foster met orbison on the first session in the studio in Nashville, and Foster was still chafing at Rose's dictum about how the records should sound. He kept looking for a song he thought could be a hit, visiting publishers but coming up empty. orbison had played "only the Lonely" for him earlier, but Foster said its structure was too awkward, with the chorus initially consisting of only that line coupled with a 32-bar verse, and it was longer than the conventional country or pop song at the time. He had also played "Come Back to Me, My Love" for Foster, whose instincts about song choices showed an analytical side. "Trouble was it was a teenage death song, too much like 'Teen Angel,'" he recalled. "And you can only have one teenage death song every 20 years. But there was this vocal figure on it, and one morning at breakfast it came to me that if we put that into 'only the Lonely' we'd have a hit. So I walked over to Roy's room at the Anchor Motel downtown and knocked on his door and told him. He wasn't sure it would work, but we wound up cutting it a day or two later over at the RCA Studios." It went to Number 2 in 1960 and launched orbison's career.
Foster used Nashville's studios, publishers, songwriters and musicians, but he used them differently, spending an entire day on one or two songs and planning the sessions carefully in advance, rather than just relying on choosing a good song and counting on the musicians to come up with a fast arrangement. Foster was increasingly using musicians from both Muscle Shoals and Memphis. The R&B-style players from those cities were more receptive to his way of making records, and eventually he convinced some of those musicians to come to Nashville permanently. "The old guard down here was trying to do four songs in three-hour sessions," he said. "I looked at Motown, where they had a house band which went into the studio and stayed there all day until they came up with something everyone was happy with. I wondered how the hell we were supposed to compete with Motown.
"I started out doing two songs a session and got down to doing one per session pretty quickly," he continued. "I couldn't get a regular band in Nashville until the Memphis guys got here, so I just went in and kept doing takes until I thought it was right. Not everyone connected with those sessions liked that...The studio was costing me money, so I always knew what I wanted when I walked in. But we still took as long as I thought we needed to, and I listened to any suggestions the musicians had. I do remember, though, that for 'Pretty Woman' we even went into the studio knowing the guitar lick ahead of time." Nonetheless, he remembered, "Wesley [Rose] told me I was ruining Nashville. And he wasn't the only person who ever said that to me there."
Foster and Nashville did not always see eye to eye, but by developing pop artists in Nashville he helped broaden the city's music industry. And Foster engendered tremendous loyalty from his artists. Even as Monument's ship was sinking, its hull rent by an unrelated financial deal gone bad, artists like Dolly Parton and Kristofferson stuck with him and tried to revive the label's flagging fortunes.
"I was always considered an outsider in Nashville, and I always considered myself to be that, too," Foster summed up. "It was always cliquish and resistant to change. And ultimately with what's going on now, it may wind up like New York or L.A. I hope not, though, 'cause it's a real friendly place."
Get well, Fred.