Poets and Prophets


September 10, 2011

Their songwriting prowess has prompted comparisons to powerhouse creative teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Leiber and Stoller, but Jerry Foster and Bill Rice worked in country music, their fame spread through recordings by the likes of Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nat Stuckey, Hank Williams Jr., and Ferlin Husky. Though not as well known as those other songwriting collaborators, Foster and Rice were elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994.

Foster was the lively subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly songwriter interview series, Poets and Prophets, on September 10, 2011. Museum editor Michael Gray hosted the session in the museum’s Ford Theater. Foster recalled a happy childhood in rural southeastern Missouri. He idolized his cotton-farming father (“the only hero I ever had”), but times were hard, and instead of a toy pistol, Foster played with a box with a picture of a pistol; he found out the box behind the local dime store.

Immediately after graduating from high school in Gideon, Missouri, Foster joined the marines (“I told people I was cut out to be a farmer but I was sewed up wrong.”) While stationed near Beaufort, South Carolina, he began playing hillbilly music with a group at Miller’s Market, where he was discovered by a local car dealer who agreed to sponsor the band on radio. Foster wasted no time landing a television gig (he barged in on a management meeting) in Savannah, Georgia, and he became a regular on the Peach State Jamboree from Swainsboro, Georgia.

Foster won his first record deal as a rockabilly artist, in 1957, for Don Robey’s Backbeat Records. He recorded “Your Love” in Houston with Little Richard’s band, but Foster’s future would be in songwriting.

Rice, meanwhile, had begun to make a name for himself as an artist for Dot Records, covering the Fats Domino tune “Let the Four Winds Blow.” Foster and Rice crossed paths while working some shows together in 1961 and 1962 on the Missouri nightclub circuit, and as radio disc jockeys at KTCB in Malden, Missouri. The duo discovered that Rice had a special aptitude for melodies (“His melodies would sing to me,” Foster said), while Foster had a penchant for lyric writing, and together they made for a formidable songwriting team. Rice was from northeast Arkansas, with a background similar to Foster’s.

Rice’s guitar player, Roland Janes (who distinguished himself in the 1950s by playing guitar on classic Sun Records by Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley), connected the writers with song publishers Bill Hall and Jack Clement. Hall, Foster said, was the best song plugger he had ever seen. “We’d write a song, and he’d be on the street with it before the ink got dry.” Benny Barnes was the first artist to cut a Foster and Rice composition. Soon Moon Mullican and Johnny Preston had found songs to their liking.

In 1967, Hall moved to Nashville to set up shop. Foster, finally confident that he and Rice could hold their own next to Music City mainstays Dallas Frazier and Doodle Owens, followed Hall to Nashville two weeks later. By early 1968, Pride had released “The Day the World Stood Still,” and he followed it a few months later with “The Easy Part’s Over,” both Foster and Rice compositions, and the duo were on their way. “Charley launched us,” Foster said. “The phone started ringing.”

Jerry Lee Lewis also found their work to his liking. The Killer’s recording of “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” went to #1 in 1972, the duo’s first Billboard chart-topper. Gray played a medley of Lewis recordings of Foster and Rice tunes, including “Chance” (1971), “Think About It Darlin’” (the 1972 flip side of “Chantilly Lace”), “Let’s Put It Back Together Again” (1976), and “Thirty Nine and Holding” (1981).

“Someone to Give My Love To,” a major hit for Johnny Paycheck in 1972, and a modest charter for Tracy Byrd twenty-one years later, has been recorded thirty times, by a diverse list of vocalists that includes Bobby Bland and Robert Goulet.

From 1971 to 1978, Foster said, the duo was so hot that they got their songs recorded on the strength of their songwriting work tapes alone, their compositions snapped up before they could hold proper demo sessions, in which professional singers and musicians gave shape to their creations.

In 1972, performing rights organization ASCAP presented the duo with awards for ten works that ranked among the most-played country songs of the year, a record haul that ASCAP officials celebrated by rolling the trophies out in a golden wheelbarrow. A record, that is, until two years later, when Foster and Rice landed eleven country awards, a single-year benchmark that has never been equaled.

Prompted by Gray, Foster told the story of a despondent young woman, on the brink of suicide, who changed her mind when, listening to the radio, she heard Ferlin Husky’s recording of “Rosie Cries a Lot” (1973), a Foster and Rice tune, and one of an entire album Husky devoted to their compositions. The woman called Foster to tell him about the song’s impact on her. “My whole career,” he said, “is worth this one phone call.”

Foster and Rice tunes have showed staying power, finding new audiences with the passage of time. Hank Williams Jr. recorded “I’ll Think of Something” when producer Jim Vienneau overheard-through the air-conditioning ducts in the building-the duo working it out for the first time. Mark Chesnutt’s musical father liked the song and included it in his repertoire, so it was only natural that Chesnutt would make it a #1 hit in 1992. Connie Smith has included another, “My Part of Forever” (a 1974 hit for Paycheck), on her new album.

During the interview, Foster paused to perform several songs, including “The Fight” (recorded by Sheb Wooley as his alter ego, Ben Colder); “I’ll Think of Something”; and “It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings” (not a Rice co-write, but a hit nonetheless for Chesnutt in 1995-96).

In his seventies, Foster remains active, writing songs and performing regularly at the Commodore Lounge in the Holiday Inn on West End Avenue in Nashville. He also has done voice-overs and appeared in films, including the upcoming Green Corn. Rice lives in Florida.

-Jay Orr