Fred Foster — a Nashville music legend who helped launch the careers of
Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison and founded Monument Records — died Wednesday at age 87.
His singular, 60-year career as a producer, songwriter and label owner was celebrated
in grand fashion in 2016, when Foster was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
That evening, Parton stood on stage and paid tribute to the man who “saw things in me that
nobody else did.”
“You started my life with my first record,” she said.
Introducing Parton to the world is just the start of Foster’s accomplishments. He did
the same with Kris Kristofferson and Orbison, recognizing each artist’s inimitable gift
and bringing it to the forefront of their sound.
“I tried to do the best I could every time,” Foster told The Tennessean in 2016. “I tried to
do something time would not be critical of. It’s like Orbison said to me one time, ‘What’s
the most important thing we’re going to do?’ I said, ‘We’re going to eliminate every gimmick
you come up with. They don’t endure.’”
Foster was born July 26, 1931, in rural North Carolina. At 15, he took over the family
farm when his father died. Two years later, he moved to Washington, D.C., where his sister
lived. Foster wanted to be anything but a farmer, and he started to write songs.
A job in a record store was his introduction to the music business. He was hired at
Mercury Records in 1953 and worked his way up to head of national country promotion.
After a brief run at ABC/Paramount in 1956, Foster started Monument Records and publishing
company Combine Music in 1958.
He moved the companies to Nashville two years later. Over the following decade, he produced
the Orbison classics “Oh, Pretty Woman,” "Only the Lonely,” “Crying” and many others,
as well as Parton’s 1967 debut album and her first hit, “Dumb Blonde.” He also co-wrote
Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and produced his landmark 1970 debut for Monument.
Another big, albeit brief piece of Foster's legend: He signed a pre-fame Willie Nelson
to the label. They released just one single — 1964's "I Never Cared For You" — before Nelson moved
on to RCA.
Kristofferson's early tunes were published by Combine Music, as was
Orbison's "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" and Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie."
Monument's roster also included Jeannie Seely, Ray Stevens, Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers,
Boots Randolph and Charlie McCoy, among others.
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