Visionary record producer, label executive and music publisher Fred Foster, who guided the early careers of Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, among many others, died Wednesday in Nashville following a short illness. He was 87.
The founder of Monument Records, which released Parton’s first hit single, “Dumb Blonde,” in 1967, as well as Kristofferson’s early country-pop hit “Why Me” in 1973, Foster was responsible for producing a string of Roy Orbison’s best-known songs in the early Sixties, including “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Blue Bayou,” “Crying” and the 1964 classic “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Foster’s Combine Music publishing company gave rise to Kristofferson’s songwriting career, as he penned some of his best-known songs there and went on to record them for Monument, including “Me and Bobby McGee.” Foster shares a writing credit on that song, having come up with the original idea. Other Combine hits include Orbison’s “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream”), written by Cindy Walker; “Dueling Banjos,” the centerpiece of the 1972 Burt Reynolds film Deliverance; “Polk Salad Annie,” a 1968 pop hit by Tony Joe White; and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” penned by White and cut by, among others, Brook Benton.
Born July 26th, 1931, in Rutherford County, North Carolina, Foster would relocate to Washington, D.C., when he was 18 in pursuit of a job in the music industry. Landing a position at J&F Distributors, he launched the company’s pop division and supervised future Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmy Dean’s first recording, “Bumming Around,” a 1953 Top Five country hit. Foster went on to work for Mercury Records, ABC-Paramount, and for an independent record distributor in Baltimore. An early triumph occurred at ABC-Paramount, when Foster acquired the master recording of George Hamilton IV’s “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” from the tiny Colonial label. Foster helped the single reach the pop Top 10 in 1956.
Two years later, he founded Monument Records, its name inspired by the Washington Monument. Later in 1958, Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” became Monument’s first hit and he moved the label to Nashville, where he oversaw a string of solid hits by Orbison. Other artists who recorded for Monument and/or wrote for Combine included Larry Gatlin, Jeannie Seely and Billy Swan.
While Foster sold Monument and Combine in the 1980s, he continued to work in the business. He produced the Grammy-winning Willie Nelson and Ray Price duet “Lost Highway” in 2007, for the Nelson, Price and Merle Haggard collaboration Last of the Breed. He also helmed the production of Nelson’s You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, and, at 85 years old, produced Price’s final recordings for 2016’s Beauty Is.
When Foster, alongside Randy Travis and Charlie Daniels, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016, Parton performed “Dumb Blonde” at the medallion ceremony, telling Foster, “If anybody deserves this, you do. You really gave me a shot and you were a gentleman when Porter Wagoner stole me away.” Brandy Clark also appeared at that event to perform “Blue Bayou,” which more than a decade after Orbison’s version would become a major pop hit for Linda Ronstadt.