by Jordan Green
I find Jeffrey Dean Foster squatting on the sidewalk on East Fourth Street on a Sunday afternoon, not on the porch or the patio or at the bar at Krankies Coffee, no prominent perch the way a hipster might stake a place to be seen.
He’s like an apparition, so comfortable with these streets they fit him like old jeans, almost invisible. While beautiful, young people throng the café scene on West Fourth Street, Foster thinks about his father’s sporting-goods store on Sixth Street, how they used to walk a couple blocks to the old Murphy’s Lunch, its window now caked in dust, easy to miss as the city hurtles forward into the new millennium.
The Winston-Salem music scene has a certain hip cachet as a kind of junior partner to Raleigh and Chapel Hill, but Foster was here with his band the Right Profile in the early ’80s, sharing a house, rehearsing constantly and touring relentlessly across the South. They were the first wave of post-punk, influenced by Patti Smith and the Stooges, but not too jaded to incorporate the straight-ahead rock and roll of the Stones into their sound.
With his later band, the Pinetops, Foster laid out the prototype for what would come to be called alt-country and Americana. Through his solo work since then, beginning with the exquisite 2005 release Million Star Hotel, he has drawn on the ’70s influences of his youth, including the lush production values of Fleetwood Mac and ELO, and the songcraft of Neil Young and Tom Petty.
We decide to sit outside at a picnic table to enjoy the fresh air on a perfect, cool and clear autumn day with the faded factory works of Reynolds Tobacco over our shoulders. We’re here to talk about his new record, The Arrow, the first in nine years, which hits stores on Nov. 4.
He remembers back in the ’70s when a new record was an event, something eagerly anticipated, and it’s clear that he’s proud of the songs, proud of the playing on it. He wants it to hit with the proper impact.
A lot of work went into this record.
The Arrow was a collective effort, with friends pitching in to get the job done, compared with the solitary labor of its predecessor.
Not quite in line with Foster’s original intention, the initial session at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville turned out to be a reunion of North Carolina music royalty. With drummer Brian Landrum and guitarist John Phiffner in tow, Foster figured that Easter would handle bass duties. What he didn’t anticipate was that Don Dixon, a bass player active in the North Carolina scene in the late ’70s and a well regarded producer in his own right, would be there waiting to go to work. Easter and Dixon have a long history of collaboration: They co-produced REM’s landmark debut album Murmur in 1983.
“I figure, ‘That’s great, it’s a real Southern record,’” Foster says, recalling the 2009 session for The Arrow. “Mitch is a great producer. And Dixon’s great to have around because he’s such a cheerleader in the studio. He and Mitch are a great combination. Don is outward and enthusiastic. He’s saying, ‘Okay, teach me the next song. Let’s go!’ Mitch is usually pretty quiet. He doesn’t talk much until he really has something to say. When you come to an impasse and everybody is frustrated, he’ll say something like, ‘You could put a capo on the fifth fret. That’s what all the kids are doing.’ ‘Ah, yeah. Of course, why didn’t we think of that?’”
The songs were recorded quickly, sometimes in one or two takes. The false start preserved on “Hang My Head on You” commemorates the high spirits of the session.
“Young Tigers Disappear,” a searing George W. Bush-era indictment of chickenhawk warmongering, was recorded without a demo, with Foster teaching the song to the session players on the spot.
“John played some crazy guitar that he probably wouldn’t have played if he had known the song,” Foster says.
While the overall production, packaging and marketing of the The Arrow reflects a deliberate approach, the individual performances that make it up retain a raw sense of spontaneity. On subsequent sessions, Foster recorded vocals, often using first or second takes.
Some of the session work was done while Foster was painting Easter’s house in an arrangement of swapped labor.
“He would call me, and say, ‘I got something, come listen to it,’” Foster recalls. “I would go down in my work clothes with paint all over me and sing. I had been working all day, so I wasn’t focusing too hard. I like that because it was like I was a workingman, not an artiste or a dilettante in the studio.”
Many of the songs are imbued with a sense of mortality, equal parts sorrow at the understanding that none of us will be here forever and joy in the realization that the fleeting moment is for us to live.
“Life is Sweet,” the concise rocker that opens the album, is dedicated to a handful of Foster’s cohorts who have died in the last several years. Among them is Faye Hunter, the bass player from Easter’s seminal early ’80s jangle-pop band Let’s Active. Hunter took her own life last summer shortly after playing a well-received concert in downtown Winston-Salem that also occasioned a reunion of the Right Profile for the first time in 27 years.
“When we started the record, we just had these songs; there was no intentional theme,” Foster says. “But it clearly is that. Everybody around us is not 25 years old anymore. From the time we started this record we had five of our
close friends die. That’s had to affect the way the record sounds.”
Then there is his father, Larry Conrad Foster, who passed away on Valentine’s Day.
“He was such a healthy, strong guy,” Foster says quietly. “He had heart problems as he got older. It pained me to see him suffering. It was just one of those situations.”
The optimistic lyrics of the title track, originally conceived as an epic and later pared down into a bright, straight-ahead Buddy Holly ditty, say it all.
“Life is sweet, but it don’t last,” Foster sings. “When you catch a wave, ride it before it’s passed.”