Fred Foster, Founder of Monument Records and Combine Music, Dead at 87

Produced Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Among Others

Country Music Hall of Fame member Fred Foster — an early champion of such rising talents as Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison — died Wednesday (Feb. 20) in Nashville following a brief illness. He was 87.

Best known for founding Monument Records and Combine Music, Fred Luther Foster was born in Rutherford County, N.C., on July 26, 1931. He was working in the food services industry in Washington, DC in the 1950s when he began writing songs. Foster subsequently held positions with Mercury and ABC Paramount Records.

In early 1958, the formed Monument Records (which he named for the Washington Monument). That same year, the new label had its first hit, “Gotta Travel On,” by Billy Grammer, who would later become a longtime member of the Grand Ole Opry. Riding the crest of the nascent folk music craze, “Gotta Travel On” soared to No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart and to No. 5 on the country rankings.

Concurrent with establishing Monument, Foster also set up the Combine Music publishing company. Both were initially located in Baltimore, but Foster moved them to Nashville in 1960. Roy Orbison signed to Monument in late 1959, and Foster became his producer. Over the next six years, Orbison charted 17 singles for the label. Among these, Foster produced such classics as “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” “Crying,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Fred Foster with Roy Orbison

Elmer Williams/Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum/Getty Images

Although Combine got off to a slower start than Monument, it came into its own in the mid-1960s with the signing of Kristofferson, Parton, Larry Gatlin, Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Dennis Linde and Tony Joe White, among others. Parton’s first two chart hits were on Monument. But it was Kristofferson who really enhanced Combine’s stature via such memorables as “Me and Bobby McGee” (inspired by a Foster suggestion), “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

Even after bankruptcy led to the sale of Combine in 1986, and the Monument master recordings a year later, Foster remained heavily involved in music, primarily as a producer. In recent years, he produced Willie Nelson’s You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006), the Willie Nelson-Merle Haggard-Ray Price album, Last of the Breed (2007) and Price’s final collection, Beauty Is (2014).

Foster was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. His death announcement said that a memorial service is being planned for March.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.