As a kid growing up in Del Rio, Texas, singer-songwriter Radney Foster claims he once heard the half-million-watt station XERF coming in over the metal strands of a barbed-wire fence.
The pirate station, home of Wolfman Jack, played a little bit of everything for the truckers' rolling freight across the hot two-lane blacktop, from The Beatles to Merle Haggard.
It's clear the strong signal also left a lasting impression on the performer whose music, and new CD "See What You Want to See" (Arista), are such unique American hybrids they resist labeling.
His appeal comes in the rhythms, melodies, and cutting riffs put together by a student of music, who understands the mechanics and emotion of composing and the human heart. And a fearlessness to move from the Jackson Browne-sounding "I've Got a Picture" to the country funk of "Folding Money."
Cut after cut from this third solo CD presents various anomalies, mostly defying traditional description. Foster sees it as a rock CD. However it's described, all the songs are worth going back to for the country-pop fan fatigued by the over-processed music coming out of Nashville.
His real genius, though, may be in his tightly wrapped lyrics, and a shifting perspective that even William Faulkner would appreciate.
In the lead cut, "Picture," the blame and pain of love gone wrong is explored in a haunting retrospective of remembered images: "Each little piece of what we thought was fine/ is laid out for all the world to see/ you won't get the chance to prove who's right or wrong/ you just get the chance to prove what's gone."
What follows is "I'm In," which trades in the anger and sadness of love lost for the hope and promise of new love found and the hope that comes with it.
Aided by backup vocals by Abra Moore, he also conveys bewildered excitement. "If I knew what I was doing/ I'd be doing it right now/ my words might not be magic, but they cut straight to the truth/ so if you need a lover and a friend/ baby I'm in."
It's Foster's reputation as the thinking man's lyricist that has earned him a following in Nashville as one of the most talented songwriters in town.
"Songwriting is really mining the soul," Foster says. "You've got to dig deeper and get closer to what your heart and soul is telling you."
Foster the songwriter is enjoying success as other artists record his songs as well. Collin Raye's "Anyone Else," which recently hit the Top 10 country charts, came from Foster's pen. As did "Never Say Die" on the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces" CD.
As a kid, Foster would spend Saturday nights sitting on a parent's knee listening to family and neighbors strumming and singing just about anything they knew. From Fats Waller to Roy Orbison, Latino beat to jazz, Foster was steeped in it all.
It led him to form the '80s duo Foster and Lloyd with Bill Lloyd, which earned a dedicated following. An early '90s solo effort, "Del Rio, Texas 1959," gave him wider national exposure with the hit single "Nobody Wins."
Foster credits Arista, his label, with letting him create his own kind of music. "It was like Nashville took a big right turn, and I took a big left," he says.
Foster's music weathered and matured further when he divorced from his first wife. Adding to the difficulty, his wife took their son to France, an event that turned Foster the singer into a lobbyist to change child-custody laws.
"I know I'm not the only guy who's been through a divorce or the only guy who has a child a long way away," he says. "[But] those are the universal things [that some people] go through. If you pay attention, there is a way for it to touch people [through songs] whether it's a guy who drives a truck for a living or whether it's a guy who puts on a suit and does investment banking."
With the hard times behind him, Foster is looking forward this month to the birth of a son with his second wife.
The healing and appreciation of the good times are reflected in the final song on his CD, accompanied by Emmylou Harris, titled "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)." It's a lullaby written for his son, who's spending the summer with his dad in Nashville.
"Pirates sail and lost boys fly/Fish bite moonbeams every night/And I love you/Godspeed, little man/Sweet dreams, little man/My love will fly you each night on angel's wings."