Radney Foster's latest project, a collection of short stories and accompanying songs titled For You to See the Stars, shows a different side of his storytelling ability. It came from a most unexpected scenario.
The singer-songwriter, 58, who performs tonight at Smitty K's, endured a serious bout with pneumonia and laryngitis in 2015. It left him unable to talk or sing for an extended period of time.
"Six weeks for a guy who sings for a living is an eternity," the Del Rio native says by phone. "That's an existential crisis. You get way up inside your mind after a couple of weeks."
Though fear naturally crept in -- "I thought, 'Oh, my God, what if I can never sing again?' " -- Foster managed to funnel his creativity into a writing project. He aimed to take a song he had written called Sycamore Creek and expand it into a piece of short fiction. He says he wrote down the idea on a piece of paper -- his primary way to communicate at the time -- and handed it to his wife, Cyndi.
"She didn't even answer me," Foster says. "She took the pen out of my hand and wrote down on the same piece of paper, 'You should, because you're driving me crazy.' And that's how it started."
Foster was encouraged by the results, as was Cyndi, a journalist and former magazine editor. ("I married a music critic," he jokes. "That can be tough on a songwriter.") A second story emerged, and Foster wrote a song to go with it. Soon, he says, "The light bulb went off. … This could be a project."
As the book and album evolved, and Foster's voice returned after weeks of physical therapy and voice training, some songs were inspired by stories and some stories were inspired by songs. At his wife's suggestion, he looked for an "old chestnut" to examine. That led to a tale titled "Isabel," which came out of Raining on Sunday, Foster's 1999 song that Keith Urban covered and turned into a top-five hit in 2003.
Foster, who had several hits in his duo with Bill Lloyd in the late 1980s, and then as a solo artist (including Just Call Me Lonesome and Nobody Wins), raised money for the project through Kickstarter, including special goodies for contributing fans. One of the top perks was an autographed guitar, which Foster personally delivered.
"I'll come have a jam session with you," he recalls of his conversation with the fan. "He said, 'I'm not that great a player, man. Will you just come play the guitar for me and my family and have a little concert? We'll order some barbecue.' I said 'Yeah, man, that's great.' "
The short fiction, published by Working Title Farm, covers a wide variety of themes. There's a childhood story that incorporates American history ("Bridge Club"), a thoughtful exploration of family ties ("For You to See the Stars"), portraits of people searching for life's purpose ("Isabel") and a coming-of-age tale that seems fit for a feature film ("Sycamore Creek").
A few common threads run throughout: redemption, the relationship between fathers and their children, and the way music can inspire young people.
"You write what you know," Foster says. "… It can't help but be musically related. I lost my father 10 years ago; it will be 10 years this May, and that has had a profound effect on me. So I think that's an ever-present theme. I think there's something about us, as human beings, that long to make the things that are wrong right. Thus, redemption and reconciliation are pretty common themes."
Foster chuckles when asked about another reference that often pops up in the book: bourbon. "I am an Episcopalian, so there you go," he says. His writing hours were frequently limited to early in the morning, fueled by coffee, or late at night, with two fingers of his preferred liquor.
"I was being altered in one direction or the other most of the time that I was writing," he says with a laugh, "either with caffeine or with bourbon."
Details: Radney Foster performs with opening acts Austin English and John Baumann, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Smitty K's, 12601 Texas 30. The show is sold out. smittyks.com.