If it weren’t for an appreciative crew of his fellow roughnecks, independent country artist Frank Foster still might be playing his music mostly for an audience of seagulls and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Working on Gulf oil rigs is where Foster, who makes his debut at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint on Saturday, first got his start. A native of Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, he enjoyed the work, but the downtime left something to be desired, he told The Daily Times recently.
“The way my schedule was, I had two weeks on, then two weeks off — 14 days in the Gulf, then 14 at home,” he said. “It was a good job, and I made good money, but it’s dangerous, and the worst thing about it after you get off a 12-hour shift is that you can’t go home, because you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean. So I took my guitar with me, and I would play songs I had written to the guys I worked with.
“That kind of environment, it’s like being in the locker room in high school for 24 hours a day. We pick on each other and rib on each other, but when guys like that started looking at me and saying, ‘Hey man, this stuff is pretty damn good; you’ve got to try this and get out of here’ — that’s when I knew I had something. Without those guys encouraging me, I don’t know that I ever would have made the leap or made the move to Nashville.”
Back home, his wife told him the same thing, and so in 2009, they pulled the trigger and moved from Louisiana to Nashville. He was still traveling back and forth to the rigs for work, but during his two weeks of down time, he played songwriter nights and knocked on doors throughout Music City, eventually connecting with a buddy who had a home studio. It was there he cut his first two albums, 2011’s “Rowdy Reputation” and 2012’s “Red Wings and Six Strings.”
“Nothing about them is very special at all, sonically, but I toured those two records two weeks at a time,” he said. “I was still working in the Gulf, but when you’ve got 50 guys on a rig, and they go home and tell 50 buddies about your music, by the time my first album came out, I already had a fanbase built. The first two shows I ever went and played were sold out.
“That’s not to say we haven’t had hard times; we were in a van for a couple of years, but after the second album, I went back to Louisiana to do a hometown show, and I realized I could manage something bigger, and we’ve been on a tour bus ever since.”
By 2013’s “Southern Soul,” Foster realized that working on rigs was actually costing him money: He made more by maintaining a steady touring schedule than he did doing it in starts and stops. He turned in his notice, and his wife, who was a registered nurse, quit her job as well and took over managing the day-to-day affairs — and Frank Foster became a bona fide full-time country artist.
His album sales reflected it: “Red Wings and Six Strings” debuted at No. 30 on the Billboard Top County Albums Chart, and every record since has landed inside of the Top 20. (And 2014’s “Rhythm and Whiskey” made it all the way to No. 4.) Considering that’s a feat accomplished without commercial radio play, label support or awards that tend to overlook or outright snub independent artists, it’s little wonder that Foster is grateful he never signed a record deal.
“If it would have been offered to me in 2011 rather than 2014 or 2015, it probably would have been a different story, but my wife and I, and even our band, felt like we had built this thing well,” he said. “It got to a point where we were out on the road, making good money, so why would we let somebody take it over now that we’ve built it? I’ve had several opportunities to sign a deal, but I made that decision to ride the dark horse a long time ago.
“And I think that helps me with that sense of realness to the fanbase we’ve built. When I run into them, I’m wearing my Red Wing boots, Carhartt pants and a tore-up T-shirt. I don’t get all keyed up every day; I’m just my regular self. The same guy they see on Instagram and Facebook is the same guy they meet at the show. There’s nothing sugarcoated, man, and I think the fans appreciate that.”
His most recent record, released earlier this year, is “Star Spangled Bangers,” and while the title may suggest that it’s a patriotic record, Foster takes a different tact.
“I wanted it to have that feel of good old straight-ahead American music,” he said. “It mentions falling in love in the U.S.A., and that could be a (John) Mellencamp song. I just wanted America to be the backdrop to things that folks like to do in America — fall in love and take care of one another and ride up to the country store and have a hamburger with the old man.
“I don’t get political — my daddy told me a long time ago, ‘Son, you can vote for whoever you want to, but they’re all crooked, or they wouldn’t be running.’ I just wanted my fans to know, and anybody else who comes along and might be a fan tomorrow, that this is the side of the fence we ride on.”