Jim Foglesong Heads to Country Music Hall of Fame

"The Man Who Signed Garth" Looks Back on a Career of Pop and Country Triumphs

“I’m just kind of a music junkie,” Jim Foglesong confesses. “Whatever I’m doing at the moment is my favorite.”

What he’s doing at this particular moment is reflecting on his impending induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with singer-songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson. The two will officially enter this brightest enclave of Hillbilly Heaven during Tuesday night’s (Nov. 9) CMA Awards show.

Unfamiliar though his name may be to most country fans, Foglesong is the guy who signed George Strait and Garth Brooks to their first record contracts, who spotted and released Donna Fargo’s “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” and Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and who presided over the works of Roy Clark, Barbara Mandrell and the Oak Ridge Boys through most of their biggest hits.

Long since retired from the record wars, the 82-year-old Foglesong now teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and directs Trevecca Nazarene University’s music business program. Trevecca is so proud of his win that it has posted two giant billboards in his honor near the school’s entrance.

James Staton Foglesong was born in the mountainous coal-mining region of Logan County, W.Va., and grew up in South Charleston, near the state’s capital.

“My mother and dad loved music, were very much into music,” he says. “Dad sang bass and played a little violin — not fiddle. … We sang and listened to music all the time, and it wasn’t country music. Country music at that time was not that prevalent. We sang a lot of church music. We were very active Baptists. Supposedly, I started singing when I was being given a bath — at 14 months or something like that. My mother and dad both swore that was true, but I’m sure it wasn’t very good. … We always had the Metropolitan Opera on the radio on Saturday afternoons. When we drove over to Logan County or Fayette County to visit our relatives, we sang from the time we started the car until we got there. Always in harmony.”

During his teen years, Foglesong sang on a live 15-minute radio show called South Charleston Night. He can’t recall if it was a weekly or monthly show, but he remembers the town’s mayor would talk about such civic fare as garbage collection, a local minister would offer a prayer and the announcer would say, “Here’s Jimmy Foglesong, accompanied by his mother.”

Less than a year after the U.S. entered World War II, Foglesong joined the Army. Even here, he continued with his music. “We always had a quartet or a trio,” he says. He left the Army in 1946. Then, backed by the G. I. Bill of Rights, he auditioned for and was accepted into the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He studied there for four years as a voice major.

“While I was there,” says Foglesong, “I got a lot of encouragement to go to New York and try to get into [show] business. I did every kind of performance I could possibly do. I was a tenor soloist in a Presbyterian church there [in Rochester]. I sang in a quartet in a Reformed Jewish temple on Friday nights and sometimes Saturday morning. At school, I sang opera, Gilbert & Sullivan. I met Toni, my wife, when we were cast opposite each other in a musical.”

After graduating from Eastman in 1950, Foglesong moved himself and his musical ambitions to New York City. “You find your niche,” he says. “My niche seemed to be my musicianship and my type of voice — a light lyric tenor. At that time, there were several radio shows that featured light lyric tenors. … The nice thing about being a tenor is that the tenor always gets the girl. The baritones are the villains and losers.”

The young singer’s aim was to become a professional performer or, failing that, a music teacher. He had no aspirations, he says, to get into the record business, even though it was generating a lot of excitement at that time because of its recent switch from the scratchy sounding and easily breakable 78 rpm discs to the flexible, “long-playing” and higher-fidelity 33-1/3 rpm platters. “I’d never thought about getting into the record business,” Foglesong says.

While searching for a steadier gig, Foglesong worked as a tenor soloist at First Baptist Church and sang in a double quartet at the Avenue R Temple, both in Brooklyn. He even labored as part-time clerk at Chase Manhattan Bank. Then, after about a year in the city, a friend from Eastman helped him get a job at Columbia Records.

“This was in ’51,” he recounts, “and the [long-play] record was only three years old at the time. So [Columbia] had these vast vaults of 78 rpm records that needed to be put on tape [to transfer to the new format]. In classical music, there was a lot of splicing to be done. A movement in a symphony can be 12 or 15 minutes in length, and on the old 78s, the most you could get on one side would be three-and-a-half or four minutes. … They needed a good musician to make sure the splicing was done appropriately.” That became his duty.

While he found the work challenging and enjoyed working with some of the classical musical giants of the day, Foglesong still wanted to be a performer. So when both he and Toni were offered singing spots in the touring company of Fred Waring’s Festival of Song, they jumped at it. By this time, however, Columbia was so pleased with his work that they offered him a leave of absence to tour, and he returned to the label after six months on the road.

Soon after he returned to Columbia, the company started a new label, Epic. Here, he says, he worked as sort of a “musical flunky.” One of his assignments was to listen to foreign records of all times and help decide which ones Epic would release in America. On the side, he did background singing for Columbia recording acts. It was during one such session that he met and worked with Quincy Jones, who was arranging an album for actor and singer Brock Peters, later celebrated for his role in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Little by little, I started inching myself into production,” Foglesong says. The first album he produced for Epic was a simulated minstrel show called Gentlemen, Be Seated. “Back then,” he continues, “the LP was so new that it wasn’t star-driven. A lot of the albums were sold as concepts.” His album stayed in Billboard‘s Top 10 rankings for six weeks.

With both his singing and producing gaining momentum, Foglesong had to decide which of the two career paths to take. “You can laugh about this,” he says with a chuckle, “but I opted for the security of the record business.”

Foglesong continued to sing occasionally, once even providing vocal backup in the recording studio for a new rock ‘n’ roll group, Dion & the Belmonts. He stayed with Columbia/Epic for 13 years before taking a post at RCA Records, where he remained for another seven years. It was during his tenure at Columbia that he began coming to Nashville, first to listen to songs for the pop acts he was producing — among them the great Roy Hamilton — and later to record some of these same acts, including the Ames Brothers and Al Hirt.

He recalls with special fondness a Country Music Disc Jockey Convention he attended in Nashville. “Every night, I went down to the Carousel [nightclub] in Printers Alley and sat with Mel Tillis, Roger Miller and Wayne Walker — the absolutely funniest people that have ever been born. My stomach would ache when I got back to my room from laughing so much. Of course, I was picking up all the tabs. They did drink a few.”

As a trained musician who wrote every note down, Foglesong could only marvel at the “head arrangements” he encountered in country recording sessions. “The first Columbia session I attended [in Nashville] was Johnny Horton’s. I was just spellbound. There wasn’t a piece of music in the room. I wasn’t accustomed to that. There were just lyric sheets. The session was supposed to start at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. But at 2 o’clock, I think one musician had shown up. They started ambling in. This was the A-team — Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, Joe Zinkan. I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t know the songs to be done. They probably didn’t start until 2:30. At this point, Grady, the leader, turns to Johnny and says, ‘What are we doing?’ So Johnny comes over with his guitar and sings the song to him. Of course, they’re all writing down the chord charts, which I knew nothing about. At the end of three hours, they had four songs completely done. And they were wonderful. That was my introduction to Nashville.”

Finally, in the early ’70s, he moved to Nashville to run the country division of Dot Records, which then had a roster that included Clark, Hank Thompson, Tommy Overstreet and Joe Stampley. During his second year on the job, he happened to hear a master recording of Fargo’s insanely peppy “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” and picked it up for Dot. The album that grew from that single sold over 1 million copies. “Donna really put us on the map,” says Foglesong, “and made us the darling of [label owner] Famous Music.”

In 1973, Foglesong produced Clark’s first and only No. 1 single, “Come Live With Me.” Dot was taken over by ABC Records in the mid-1970s and transformed into ABC/Dot. One of Foglesong’s first signing to the newly combined label was Don Williams. To indicate their pleasure with Foglesong’s performance, the owners made him president of the label. At this time, the other heads of country music divisions held only vice presidential rank.

Foglesong made another smart business decision in 1974 when he picked up for ABC/Dot another promising master, this one from the tiny Crazy Cajun label. It was Fender’s doleful “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Says Foglesong, “This was like the Donna Fargo story all over again.” The following year, the song went No. 1 and stayed there for two weeks. Late in the decade, the ABC/Dot lineup also boasted the Oak Ridge Boys and Mandrell.

MCA purchased and absorbed ABC/Dot in 1979, and Foglesong took over the country division of that label. During the next five years, he presided over the recording fortunes not only of the Oaks and Mandrell but also those of Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and John Conlee. And he signed Strait and Reba McEntire to the label.

Foglesong left MCA in 1984. “I was not fired from MCA,” he stresses. “They wanted me to stay. Actually, they offered me a better deal to start an associated-labels department. At the same time, the people at Capitol contacted me, and I felt that was better for my career.”

Under Foglesong’s captaincy at Capitol, Tanya Tucker came aboard and Buck Owens returned to the label. Then, on June 17, 1988, Foglesong signed Garth Brooks, arguably the best commercial and artistic move since Fred Rose signed Hank Williams to a songwriting deal.

Unfortunately, Foglesong never got to enjoy the full fruits of Brooks’ astounding popularity. Jimmy Bowen dislodged him from his Capitol post in December 1989, just as Brooks’ career started to bloom. Even so, Foglesong had the satisfaction of presiding over the launch of the young singer’s remarkable debut album and the initial hits that would give him his identity.

Except for a brief turn as director of a short-lived independent label in the early ’90s, Foglesong has devoted himself during the past 15 years to teaching and other good works. He still sings in his church choir.