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Fred Foster, Key Figure in Careers of Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Kris Kristofferson, Dies at 87

Fred Foster, a Country Music Hall of Fame member who was a key figure in the discovery and development of Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Kris Kristofferson, died Wednesday at age 87.

Foster was best known in Nashville for founding the Monument label and a publishing company, Combine Music, both of which were associated with some of the biggest names in country. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, alongside Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis (pictured above).

Foster signed Parton in 1964, producing her seminal 1960s recordings and releasing them on his Monument label. At the Hall of Fame medallion ceremony three years ago, Parton showed up to celebrate Foster by singing “Dumb Blonde,” which, under his guidance, became her first single to reach the country top 40 in 1967. “If anybody deserves one of these medallions, you do,” Parton said. “You gave me a shot, and you were a gentleman when Porter Wagoner stole me away. You saw things in me that nobody else did. I hope that I made you proud.”

Also performing in Foster’s honor at the Hall of Fame ceremony was Brandy Clark, who covered one of Orbison’s biggest hits, “Blue Bayou,” later made famous again by Linda Ronstadt. Foster produced most of Orbison’s 1960s hits, which were also released on the Monument label — among them, classic records like “Only the Lonely,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “It’s Over,” “In Dreams” and “Running Scared.”

Foster gave Kristofferson one of his big breaks and was credited as a co-writer with him on “Me and Bobby McGee,” which became a No. 1 pop hit for Janis Joplin, posthumously. Although Kristofferson essentially wrote the song on his own, Foster had told him, “You should write a song called ‘Me and Bobby McKee,’ and the catch is that Bobby is a girl,” thinking of an office assistant who went by that name. Kristofferson either misheard or deliberately changed a consonant in the last name, and thus was born a song that continues to be covered on “American Idol” in the 2010s, among other places. He produced Kristofferson’s debut album, as well.

Foster had been active as a producer as recently as last year, when he helmed an album for Americana artist Dawn Landes, “Meet Me at the River.” Getting Foster to come out of retirement to produce her album wasn’t an easy task. “It took a lot of phone calls and snail mail and even driving,” Landes told the York Press. “I was living in New York at the time and had to drive the 14 hours to Nashville…and that must have impressed him.” Besides admiring Foster’s work with Parton, Landes was enamored of an album he had done with Joan Baez — “though he didn’t like her politics, so I made sure not to talk politics.” They used a crew of musicians from the golden age of Nashville on the sessions, and “you just had to mention Fred Foster and all these musicians were so excited to work with him again.”

In the late 2000s, Foster produced albums for Willie Nelson (“You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker”), Ray Price (his final album, “Beauty Is”) and the combination of Nelson, Price and Merle Haggard (the Grammy-winning “Last of the Breed”).

In a statement, Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum said, “I revere Fred Foster, the legend who brought us the gritty genius of Kris Kristofferson, the enduring hits of Roy Orbison, and the abiding talent of Dolly Parton. But today, I’m also mourning Fred Foster, the legend who brought me laughter, goodwill, and fried pies. ‘Foster’ was the only fitting surname for this man, who fostered artistry, individuality, and broad-minded decency.”

CREDIT: Courtesy So Much Moore Media

Among the other songs that were published by Combine were “Dueling Banjos,” Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” The Monument label’s hits included Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.” Foster also started a soul label, Sound Stage 7, in 1963.

He sold the Monument label in the 1980s and had no involvement when Sony revived the vintage imprint for the Dixie Chicks in the late ’90s and started it up again, recently, with Shane McAnally and Jason Owen at the helm.

Foster was born in Rutherford County, North Carolina on July 26, 1931 and moved to Washington, D.C. at age 18 to work in the music business — a locale whose Washington Monument inspired the name of his label in years to come. He worked for Mercury and ABC-Paramount before venturing out on his own with Monument in 1958.

Foster was also member of the North Carolina Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he was celebrated alongside Nelson and Kristofferson as a recipient of the Leadership Music Dale Franklin award.

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