Like a lot of popular country acts of the day, Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd’s music had a pop tilt, but the duo’s roots as staff songwriters shone through — not only with bursts of their idiosyncratic humor (their second album was titled Faster & Llouder), but in a series of tightly written songs that boasted classically structured lyrics to match their unforgettable hooks. Above it all floated their unmistakable, fraternally tight harmonies. After “Crazy Over You” hit, it seemed like the sky was the limit.
Unfortunately, Foster & Lloyd’s success was relatively short-lived — after their third album, 1990’s Version of the Truth, they split, with both halves of the duo embarking upon solo careers. As the years wore on, they reunited occasionally for the odd gig here and there, but it seemed increasingly unlikely that we’d get another full-length album; they recorded regularly on their own, and continued to build the songwriting careers that turned them into stars in the first place.
You never know where the muse might lead you, though — and earlier this year, I was thrilled to hear from Bill Lloyd that he and his old partner had just finished work on their first new release in over 20 years. The album, titled It’s Already Tomorrow , is out now, and it gave me the perfect excuse to interview two of my favorite songwriters.
It’s great to have you guys recording as a duo again. I know you’ve worked together a little over the last 20 years, but what led to a full-fledged reunion now?
Bill: Well, as you said, we’d gotten together a few times over the years. But we wrote a couple of songs for an Americana benefit where they’d asked us to play for a fundraiser — we had Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick on bass, and Keith Brogdon agreed to drum for us. Keith had played for Radney, and I’d been out with Tom and Cheap Trick doing some Sgt. Pepper’s shows…
Radney: That really ended up fomenting this reunion — it convinced us that we needed to get together every week for a month, and at the end of the month, I think we knew we needed to make a record. So for me, it was just the songs. Something magic happened again — we were smart-assed 25-year-olds again, but in our 50s, with all the experience that goes with that.
Bill: It was a combination of all the things we remembered that we did together that we liked, along with the perspective of being an older person. [Laughter] I say “older person” ruefully, but it is that combination of being fun for us, as well as a little poignant.
Radney: Bill’s that guy in the yard yelling at the neighborhood kids.
Radney: We just both had other things going on — other careers, and completely different directions. Our friendship certainly never ended, and we were always happy to see each other and do things together. And actually, there were a couple of times we’d written together, and at the time, it just didn’t seem to spark anything that would make us go, “Oh! We should do this again.”
But for whatever reason, this time around, it was different. We left ourselves a couple of days to write before that show, and our intention was to write one song, so we’d at least have one in our pocket — but we ended up with two and a half, and a bunch of other ideas for more. Stuff was just spilling out, and it started to make sense again.
Foster & Lloyd was supposed to be huge. You guys should have conquered the world, you know? And for a little while, it seemed like maybe that was going to happen.
Bill: Yeah, we had a good run of singles, and the first album sold pretty well. The second album came out of the box with a Top Five single, but then the album title —
That was a great title for the record!
Bill: Thank you, thank you. But it kind of gave country radio a clue. [Laughter]
Radney: And quite frankly, there was a song that the label was really excited about — they thought it would really cross us over into pop, in a good way. I think they thought they could get some adult contemporary airplay out of it, because they saw what was happening at the time with bands like Restless Heart and Highway 101.
Bill: And K.T. Oslin was on our label, too. Yeah, the song was called “Before the Heartache Rolls In“…
Radney: And it was just way too outside the box for country radio. And then the genre, in my opinion, started to become much more about style than substance. There was a period where it seemed like as long as you had a big belt buckle and a hat, you could sell a million records and never be heard from again. A lot of one-hit wonders from that time period.
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Did you feel like there was some unfinished business here?
Radney: Yes and no. I was always proud of our body of work, and I’m even prouder of what we’re doing now. I’m really happy that we’ve come back together and created something that, for me, picks up where we left off, but has more maturity, and musically, is as diverse and exciting as anything we used to do.
Bill: I concur with everything he just said.
Radney: What he said! [Laughter]
Bill: Yeah, it is one of those things where it didn’t feel like unfinished business so much — I mean, we did three albums, and with country radio, there were diminishing returns trying to get them to stay with us. It made total sense for Radney to go solo at that point, and I was doing a bunch of other things that were more rock-oriented. If anyone ever wanted to find out about the stuff we’d done, there it was the whole time.
I think the problem in country music, though, is that catalog doesn’t always translate into people remembering you, and we’ve been fortunate in that respect. There were a lot of country bands that came and went during the same time as us, and there aren’t that many people who still remember them. We’re very lucky.
I’d like to talk a little about your songwriting process now. You’ve both done some impressive work on your own, but there’s something different that happens when you come together — and not just in an “oh, there’s just a certain spark” kind of way, but demonstrably different. Particularly in terms of your lyrics, which are funny and clever, but also really smart in the classic sense. It’s like twang plus Yip Harburg or Sammy Cahn…
Bill: Where do we send the check, Jeff? [Laughter]
Radney: I always loved that stuff. And I think there’s always been a part of Bill and I that completely, when we got together — from the very beginning, it was a third thing. A completely different animal. Back when we were both signed as staff songwriters, I’ll never forget Meredith Stewart, who was one of the publishers there, taking me into her office after I’d been there for six months — I thought I was getting fired. But she said she liked what I was doing on my own, she liked this and she liked that, but she said “What you’re doing with Bill Lloyd is really special, and you need to keep doing that.”
She saw it, and a lot of people saw it over there, and they were right — I might get a cut for somebody, and Bill might get a cut with somebody else, but when we wrote together, it really was something different. It’s still that way, I think.
Bill: I agree. The one thing is that when we started writing together again for this project, it’s funny — we don’t edit ourselves as much as we might if we were writing with someone else. We have a tendency to kind of let it happen, which is kind of honoring that third thing that happens when we get together.
Radney: We can’t help but joke around, and come up with smart-assed one-liners. And whereas in normal circumstances, a co-writer would hear that and say, “Okay, what do you really have?,” we just say “That’s great!” When Bill said “Let me help you out of that Freudian slip,” I died laughing. That’s a song, man.
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You’ve both done a fair amount of date writing on your own, where you’re joined up with another songwriter — usually by a third party, like a publisher.
Bill: Radney probably did it yesterday, and I’m doing it this afternoon. Radney writes with people all the time. We both do that, yeah.
Radney: Both of us still write on our own. Just because of time these days, I actually have to set aside time where it’s like, “Okay, I’m writing by myself this day.” Because otherwise, my publisher would fill my plate completely. And I have a core group of people that I like to work with, as I’m sure Bill does, because they’re just great songwriters.
And yet, part of the game these days is that a lot of artists are songwriters, or at least claim to be — even if all they can do is make coffee and watch you write a song. [Laughs] Bill will appreciate this — I just had a songwriter tell me the other day, “I wish they’d go back to the days when they just asked me for a piece of my publishing. I’d write a better song.” [Laughter]
And how has all that experience colored the way you write together now? Obviously, you were both songwriters before you came together, but…
Bill: Yeah, we were. And even in the middle of the Foster & Lloyd records, we’d write with other people.
Radney: Back then, we were such young bucks, a lot of that was just with our friends — people like Beth Nielsen Chapman…
Bill: Pam Tillis…
Radney: And also Holly Dunn. We all wrote songs, and it was natural for us to write with them, and that’s why you’d see Bill with a Pam Tillis cut. “Yeah, okay, I’ll write with you.”
So did you notice any difference at all when you were writing for this project?
Radney: I think the best thing was the instantaneous feeling of picking up where we left off. Being with someone who’s honed their craft and knows what they’re doing. It’s always fun when you don’t have to teach someone how to write a song. [Laughter] Bill and I also just have that little magic thing, you know — my wife would be making coffee and she’d come out to the studio while we were singing harmony on something, and she’d say, “That sounds just like Foster & Lloyd!”
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Have you given any thought to what comes next?
Radney: Oh, sure. We’ve got a couple of songs started that we know we need to finish — the only reason we haven’t is that we’re so busy trying to plan around the new album.
Bill: Yeah, that’s why we haven’t really been able to get back on a creative roll yet, even though there are plenty of good songs waiting for us. We work really hard these days. In the old days, we were so lucky to be signed to a big record label that acted almost as our manager, at least in the beginning. We didn’t sign with a manager, in fact, until the week our first single went Top Five. They were like our parents, you know? When we started, that relationship was great. And now we’re on Effin Ell Records…
Radney: Part of the conglomerate Effin Ell. [Laughter]
Bill: It’s a self-financed record, so everything we do comes out of our pockets. We can’t really afford to spend the kind of money we did when RCA was footing the bill.
Radney: And we also have to have a lot more meetings. How many of these can we do? What’s this going to cost? Who’s getting paid for that? All of those questions require someone to say “The buck stops here.” For better or worse, Bill and I are the CEOs of this deal.
Bill: Yeah. So all family members got cut off. They had to buy the record. [Laughter]
Radney: We will get back to writing again. Bill just finished a solo album, and I have a couple of ideas for my own thing, but as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to keep doing both — to continue with solo records alongside Foster & Lloyd.
Did you give any thought to trying to find a label for this project, or was it easier just to do it yourself?
Bill: We wanted to play it for our friends who still have those affiliations, and we did, and most of them said, “You’ve got it — just keep going.” Because things are tough at country radio, and it’s a hard fit for us at country radio — it’s all about being young. We used to be young country; now we’re not so young, and not so country. [Laughter] But we have played it for those people, and it was nice to get encouragement from them. But I didn’t want to get into a situation where we had to deal with extra fingers in the pie, creatively speaking. From the get-go, I wanted it to be Radney and I making all the decisions, right up until the time we pushed the button on it and said “Okay, this is a record.”
Radney: And the way things are right now, a label isn’t truly necessary anyway. I mean, if BMW wants to license a track from the record, that isn’t something you can plan around, and that’s more and more what gets an album over. Those things happen on their own.