Twenty years after his debut as a solo act, Radney Foster revisits the record with which he broke through commercially. The original Del Rio, TX 1959, released by Arista in 1992, spun off five Top 40 singles, including the memorable “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Nobody Wins.” Foster’s continued to record terrific material, including 2009’s masterful Revival, and developed an intensely loyal following, but he’s never re-struck the chart success chord of his debut. To be fair, he long ago gave up making records for the mainstream, leaving Arista after three albums for independent releases and more recently, his own label. With his latest effort, he ties the two ends of his solo career together by re-recording his debut with twenty years of hindsight and a free artistic palette.
The original album’s honky-tonk and then-contemporary country sounds are replaced here by unplugged, live-in-the-studio arrangements; the comfortably worn-in product of two decades touring this material. At 53, Foster’s new interpretations work on two levels: looking back at his 33-year-old self (who was, at the time, looking back at his even younger self), and rethinking younger responses with mid-life reflexes. The broken heart of “Just Call Me Lonesome” is twenty years further from the singer’s first and twenty years closer to his last. Experience turns out to be both informative and exasperating, and repetition both soothing and alarming. The farewells are more fatalistic than wounded, broken promises no longer hold an emotional surprise that’s due a meaningful apology, and unfulfilled expectations are met with more weariness than disappointment.
The eagerness of Foster’s 30-something self, a singer then on the cusp of his solo career, has given way to a more considered and wizened voice. The emotional centers of his songs gain layers as they’re slowed and sung in a reflective tone. “A Fine Line” initially offered the urgent feel of Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, but replays as a songwriter’s nostalgic meditation, and “Louisiana Blue” resigns from a two-stepping honky-tonk bruise to a deeper wallow in blue misery. The younger Foster sings “Hammer and Nails” with the full-throated enthusiasm of an explorer setting out on a monumental journey, while the elder Foster sings with the experience of one who’s already hacked his way through love’s jungle.
Foster’s tweaked the original album cover as well, adding the easy smile and forward-leaning confidence (not to mention gray hair) of an artist who’s proved himself. He welcomes numerous harmony singers, with particularly notable performances from Georgia Middleman (“Nobody Wins”) and Jack Ingram (“Hammer and Nails”), and Ashley Arrison sings her accompaniment on the stripped-down arrangement of “Nobody Wins” as more of a duet than did Mary Chapin Carpenter on the original. The album’s original ten-tracks have been shuffled slightly, with “Old Silver” moved up from the album’s end, “Went for a Ride” dropped to the last position, and a new track, “Me and John R,” added to the lineup. All in all, this is a terrific bookend for the first twenty years of Foster’s solo work.