Live Review

Kenny Foster Wins His Spurs in London

Kenny Foster at The Bedford on September 4, 2017

Photo and video: USACountryUK

A common feature of the various US artists I’ve met recently is just how much they enjoy playing over here in the UK, but talking to Kenny Foster before his appearance in south London, this love of things British went up several notches. He is by far the most knowledgable American I’ve ever met on the subject of football (sorry, soccer). However, we did talk about music too.

Looking every bit the cool dude in a wide-brimmed hat and denim jacket walking into this bar, I had expected Foster to order a large Jack Daniels. Sadly there was no whiskey. Instead, he sipped tea as we chatted.

What prompted you to leave home in Joplin, Missouri, to try your luck in the Nashville music scene? “A leap of faith, really. I had a happy childhood growing up up in a town with a lot going on where people were living fulfilled lives. I caught the music bug in college where I sang in an a capella choir. Wanting to write my own songs I started a band with one of my fellow choristers. I had moved to Belmont College in Nashville where I studied philosophy and played soccer.” That’s a broad sweep of interests, how did music win out? “I believe you should always try to follow your passion. Music was mine; despite so many people in Nashville doing the same, I still wanted to be part of that. I certainly felt emboldened to start my journey.”

With so many others with similar aspirations how did you put your own stamp on a business riven with classifications and genres? “In Nashville I kind of grew up all over again. There is, and always will be, people who play or sing or write better than me, but the way I combine those is mine alone. That is how I forge my way. My reward comes when I get a response from people who don’t know me. At the same time I am content with where I am right now. If this is it, as far as I go, then I’ve done okay.” That seems a useful bit of philosophy for making a living in the competitive world of country music.

On the subject of genres and influences, his inspirations include: “James Taylor, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks. I thought country had a sort of stigma but when I dug deeper I realized just how much earnest songwriting lay there. I do feel though that I’m trying to pull back to the roots where I’d be pushing forward. By that I mean concentrating on the song rather than creating a big sound.” So what do you write about? “Well, I’m a philosophy major, so to draw on Nietzsche, I’m concerned with the human condition. Experience, lessons learned. Observation, but that’s not as powerful as actually doing, so it's back to experience; specific stories, peeling back the truth.”

Deep Cuts, released earlier this year is your first full length album. Was that a catalyst or perhaps more just a case of now is the time? “That’s a fair comparison, I’d say a bit of both. I had written a lot of songs, 450 over the past three years and publishers were saying these are great, who’s going to record them? Several had been covered by others so I thought I’ve got to make a record. Also, I was so lucky to have Mitch Dane to produce and mix. He was such a support saying this will be great, we just mustn’t mess it up.” And he didn’t. It’s a first class debut, although the preceding EPs aren’t bad either.

Foster played solo in an intimate venue where you could hear a pin drop. “That’s another reason why I like it here. People come to listen to the music,” he said. Hat still on but now sporting a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, Foster’s tall frame draws attention. But what struck from the opening chords was the power of his voice and, exactly as he’d described earlier, how the songs resonated with experience and storytelling. That’s the draw. On top of that he set each song up with a modest commentary that exuded so much warmth.

Most of the set came from the new record, starting with "Good Enough." I did wonder how the songs would come over without the album’s beautiful production. I needn’t have worried. His voice predominates whether on record with a band or live solo. This was certainly more than good enough, reinforced by the next song, "Made." When it’s just the voice and one guitar that power comes across all the stronger. You also pay more attention to the words too, getting an example of Foster’s balanced view on life: "I ain’t got it all, I ain’t got it right, I’ve got it made.”

"The Good Ol’ Days" continued the reflective theme, back to the human condition, where Foster sings how we think about the good old days. Today will become a good old day so savour it now, don’t keep looking back. “And down the road a ways, I know we’re gonna say, that these are the good ol’ days." Foster shows that experiences don’t necessarily have to be deep or life-changing. Most are about growing up in a smallish town, doing what we’ve all done. He just has a knack of putting these into perspective. "Caught" is about the intensity of young love. An experience that will both be lost in time yet, a bit stays forever. 

The only cover "Callin’ Baton Rouge," most famously recorded by Garth Brooks. A respectful tip of one hat to another, to a big influence, which just endorsed the quality of Foster’s own compositions. In "Hometown," Foster described a tornado that struck Joplin in 2011, how he had made contact with his family then returned home to see his “childhood erased.” Again, despite the havoc, Foster can find room to express gratitude for what really matters, namely people: “what we really need is still here.” This song and his preamble were particularly well-chosen in these days of devastating storms.

There is an anthem-like quality to some of the new material, "Revival" being a good example. Again, the intensity of this song rang through in acoustic form. Similarly, if a bit more so, the final song of this too-short set was the new single, "Stand." Powerful stuff indeed.

Foster plans a return to the UK early next year. It can’t come too soon.

And finally, the football. Having been no mean player himself at college, Foster turned to fandom and is a huge Tottenham Hotspur fan. So much so he performed for the team recently on their US pre-season tour. A man of many parts.