Country Music interest in the UK in recent years has gone from bud to blossom, and as such, audiences here have been afforded the opportunity to garner stellar artists arriving on UK shores from the US to share with us their songs and their craft, endearing us to the genre all the more. I had the sincere delight of sitting down with American country artist Kenny Foster while he was here to discuss the deep roots of his music, the pleasure of performing for UK audiences, and how country music resonates with him.
How old were you when you picked up your first guitar and started learning to play?
Sophomore year in high school, my dad took me to a place called Big Don’s in Joplin Missouri and we were trying to pick out a guitar but I didn’t know the first thing about it. I didn’t know anybody who played, I was so isolated. I had been in the church choir since 3rd grade but instruments for me were like, well my dad played bass a little bit, but six strings, chords, just no. I didn’t know anybody who gave lessons. So, my first song, my dad took me home, and we plugged in his bass cab, because we didn’t have amplification, we were just plugging and playing, and he put on Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and I was trying to do play along but I didn’t know how to even push down strings, so it was a massacre, I’m glad we didn’t have recording of that! So no, I didn’t have a teacher, I am self -taught, and in fact it’s probably part of why I play a lot of open tuning, especially live, because it fills out the sound a bit more. So, it was like this open, sunburst Strat Fender, you know, the Fender two Squire, somebody had dropped it, it had a nick out of it, but yeah.
You have said that you have a wide range of influences, so did it take you a while to find your sound or did country call to you straight away?
I meandered a lot. So, my dad raised me on classic rock. My first concert was Jethro Tull. Farm On A Freeway was kind of like my dad’s, well, it’s like the story of our family. We were produce farmers all the way up to my dad actually. Just outside Joplin, then my dad became a physicist, like you do, then I threw us back into poverty again just by my music. A little bump in the road there… So, my grandad wears overalls (dungarees) everyday still, we are surrounded by the farming community. We have been in that area since right after the Civil War.
‘Stand’ is such a standout song, tell me how it came to you?
I didn’t mean for it to be so timely but yeah, we probably wrote it about a year and a half ago. I wrote it with some friends, a couple ‘Pop’ guys, we’d written some very ‘Pop’ stuff, one song called ‘Trampoline’ it was just about, well, I don’t want to sing it, I’d embarrass myself! We sat down and one of the guys brought an idea and it was so developed. There were two of us in the room and we were like, ‘I don’t know if we can jump onto that, you might as well finish that’ but there was a morsel out of that, and I kinda liked that concept. So then, I was like, ‘It makes me feel this’ and kinda what I do is I sit down with it for a while and I just spit a chorus out. And, I start singing to my co-writers and I am like, ‘I don’t know if we can say this, but I am gonna try.’ And, they just sat there and their jaws just dropped. So, I said, ‘Can we do this?’ and they were like, ‘We don’t care if you can or not, just keep going.’ I was just saying, ‘This is how I feel’ and I was a bit embarrassed. When you co-write, you tuck yourself back a bit, you are trying to serve the song, and you sort of serve the room, so when the room is saying, ‘Keep doing what you are doing’, that was a really neat moment for me. And to have them react, guys from completely different walks of life to me, coming to me and saying, ‘We feel this’. So, I thought, ‘Let’s keep doing this’ and when I got to the bridge, I was saying, ‘Can we say this?’ and they were like, ‘Yes!’ So, ‘Stand’ happened to be really timely. We demoed it the very next day, we were pitching, and it just wasn’t taking. People weren’t picking up on the song, they had the same concerns I had. But, my co-writers weren’t concerned and eventually when it came around to the time to do my artist thing, it just made sense. When we got it in the studio, I think it might have been a mistake, because we did a full arrangement of this, but when we did guitar and vocals before we brought the guys in, the guitar was muted accidentally and it was just my vocals a cappella it turned out to be quite powerful. I just thought, ‘That’s just me singing’ when I initially heard it but I was told to remove myself for a second and everyone was saying, ‘What if we started a record like this?’ and they just pressed play. So, when you start a record like that, it helps you settle in to what the rest of the record is gonna be. It set the tone for how we approached every other song. When you are picking a single, there are were a lot of things that could have been a bit easier, a bit more straight forward, but um, when you are taking a stand as an artist in some way, shape or form, don’t bend with the single choice, because you are giving the listener the wrong idea. When they press play on the record, they are like, ‘Whoa…he’s getting a bit soap-boxy!’ So, if you start with the soap box and people are already on board, then you have separate the wheat from the chaff.
How do you find playing country music here in the UK, was it what you expected?
I do find the audiences in the UK more receptive and gracious, and I don’t want to chalk that up to cultural differences though it’s an easy thing to do. Maybe it’s because there has been quasi-starvation of the genre over here for so long. So, maybe those of us who are brave enough to come over are being rewarded with a lot of attention and honestly a lot of respect which I really love. We had a show in Harrogate at Under The Apple Tree Sessions with Bob Harris, and what they have cultivated up there is really special. They packed this place out, 150 to 200, but everyone was just standing and attentive. I mean, 45 minutes, is a long time to stand up to hear somebody you may not know. It was really special. For an artist, it’s a bit different, country has a different connation here. It’s a different country fan here. In the US, they are there to have a good time and forget a bit, and what music did for me growing up was help me remember and discover things about myself. It was a discovery platform. Like, when I heard Garth Brooks’ ‘The River’ it was over for me. I was at Boys Scout Camp, and this guy said, ‘Hey, you are into music, you need to give this a try’ and handed me a cassette tape and I never gave that tape back! I wore it out. It changed my life. I had been into bands like Jethro Tull and Rush before but all of a sudden I hear this new music, this new artist with beats I recognise but an authenticity I have never heard before. There was a message. So, the fact that here in the UK it feels like, people aren’t chatting with music in the background, people are there to inhabit the music and it benefits the artist who is trying to inhabit the music as well. I am trying to pull the universality out of the music. That is not confined to the States.
It felt sort of out of left field. I have been hanging around country music several years now, playing CMA fest, ACM fest around the awards, and when you are an independent and doing something a little bit left of centre, um, it’s difficult to even get people to interact with the music. So, it’s funny that I can come to the UK and there’s a room where 200 people are hanging on my music and back home I can’t even get people to press play on the email. There’s a little bit of a stereotype because it’s not a validating agent that is bringing it to them. So, they are unwilling to take it at face value, it’s always through a frame. And, that’s interesting because they are not looking carefully in a way that I think you want labels to be when you are supposed to be looking for the best stuff. If I found the right label with the right situation that would change things a lot. But, Rolling Stone are taste makers that aren’t really beholden to the same ideals as a lot of the industry in Nashville so they can sort of make the decisions that they want to make. And, it was a really special moment and it honestly served to validate the work that I had done up to that point. I am glad they started operating out of southern Nashville which also made it possible.
Do you believe that country music has more heart and soul than a lot of other music genres?
Without question! It has a stigma. And that is what we are battling against when we say we are country musicians. With your 10-gallon hats, and your line dancing, and all, and I absolutely mean no disrespect to the very emotional connection to that. But, country music makes me feel something without a questioning of that feeling, because of its emphasis of lyrics and a strong vocal out front, as a craft, I am confronting things that I never probably even thought about in the terms that the country songs are putting out. And, that is what I see as my role as a country artist. I am trying to get people to confront things that they are not getting in their everyday lives. There’s a pub culture here in the UK that allows you to get pretty deep with a good friend over a pint because the whole purpose of you getting together is to have a chat. And, in the States that just doesn’t exist. And, I missed out on that as a kid so I got a lot of that from my music, country music. So, when I saw my role as becoming a songwriter and artist, in my life, to me it was paying it forward to that 15 year old kid who doesn’t get to talk about these things. And, if he can feel understood, and maybe be moved by that, and be helped by that, or help himself feel less awkward, I have done a great thing. And, I think country music really cares about those stories and those people and telling them in such a way that is true to the artist and song.
What’s happening next for you?
I go back home and hit writing again. I hope to come back to the UK. Maybe a quick few shows later this year. The response and the amount of people that want to help give a voice to what it is that I do, it’s really neat to see that. It’s been very welcoming to be here and psychologically been very easy. For any artist, when you have been slogging it out, it’s been really nice and feels like it did when I first started out. It feels like it imagined it would feel. You never know, the genre is wide open right now. I don’t need to write for this next album, but I want to. Now I have different feelings and I want the record to be now not just for me but now for the listener. Now for this space and time through our own lens. Sometimes, you get to put a narrative that is what is happening and it’s great to help drive the conversation.
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