Interview: Kristian Bush, Radney Foster Help Create Fictional Country Music World for ‘Troubadour’
Sometimes, when you know, you know. That’s what happened to playwright Janece Shaffer of Atlanta when she was crafting Troubadour, her new play about country music, set in 1951. Shaffer just knew that Kristian Bush needed to be the play’s songwriter, and she just knew that Radney Foster was meant to play its main role.
It all began when Shaffer went to Nashville with her husband for a long weekend. They visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and viewed a temporary exhibit that highlighted country artists’ clothing. Shaffer noticed that, for many years, artists were wearing “very church-type clothing: dark trousers, white shirts, string ties” — but then, “there was this moment where it kind of changed, and it became full of color and pattern and embroidery.”
“And I was like, ‘I want to know what happened right there,‘” Shaffer tells The Boot.
Shaffer bought The Encyclopedia of Country Music and spent the four-hour drive back to Atlanta poring over its words. What she learned and that Hall of Fame exhibit’s sudden shift from somber clothing to bedazzled duds inspired Troubadour, which finds country music legend Billy Mason (played by Foster) preparing to retire and looking to his son Joe (former The Voice contestant Zach Seabaugh) take over his legacy. But when Joe teams up with Inez (a budding singer-songwriter) and Izzy (a rodeo tailor), country music is changed forever.
Troubadour fell together seamlessly — like it was truly meant to be. As Bush tells The Boot, he didn’t discover the play; it discovered him. Though he works in Nashville quite a bit, Bush lives in Atlanta, too, and Shaffer reached out to him via a blind email to ask for his help. (Shaffer, in her own words, relied on her “girl-power network” and scored Bush’s email address from a friend who’d sat next to Bush on a plane two years prior. “It felt like the world was conspiring to connect me to Kristian,” she recalls.)
As Bush remembers it, Shaffer’s email talked about writing a play, and included something along the lines of, “I do it a lot; I’ve gotten awards for it, so I’m not a crazy fan.” Bush wrote her back and asked to meet for breakfast, during which Shaffer told Bush the play’s story.
“I started to write the first song right there at the table,” Bush says, “and I probably finished it that night.”
When it came time to cast Troubadour, Shaffer and company held open calls, but no one stood out for the role of Billy Mason … until Foster. He came to the audition dressed in character.
“I got a string tie, suit coat, white shirt, family Bible, and walked in with the most beat-up guitar case that I own,” Foster recounts, “and I didn’t break character until after.”
“Radney walked in … and started doing the character. Not necessarily the lines from the play, but referencing it,” Shaffer says, noting that, when he played the play’s title song, Bush told her, “He sings my song better than I do.” (That title song, Foster himself says, is “a tear-jerker” and “a joy to perform.”)
Foster’s talent, combined with his real-life experience of being an artist and being on the road for 35 years, made him the clear choice for the part.
“I was like, ‘We’re done. There he is,'” Shaffer continues. “There was no discussion; Radney was Billy Mason, the king of country music.”
At first, Shaffer only asked Bush for one song for Troubadour, which he says was a “good way to start, because you don’t know with a new partner.” But one song became four songs. Bush admits that he was “a little nervous,” as he had never written for theater before, but since the characters were musicians, it made the job a little more approachable.
“It wasn’t necessarily learning to write songs for musicals,” Bush explains. “It was more learning to write songs for characters that, instead of being artists across from me in a writing room, they were fiction.”
Bush says that his experience working with Jennifer Nettles for their duo Sugarland taught him “to find the story and conversation you’re having with an artist and find the story that yields the most truth.” And he turned to Shaffer for a look into each character’s mind and background, asking her about the world and the people that she’d created.
“She knew almost every answer,” Bush notes.
It’s safe to say that Troubadour was on Shaffer’s mind … well, a lot. She drew inspiration for the play from people in her life — a friend from Tuscaloosa, Ala., her son who works in public health — though nothing is based specifically on one person as a whole.
“You just kind of find details that have stayed with you,” Shaffer says. “When I can’t go to sleep at night, I think, ‘Do I think her mother’s name is Calla? I think her mother’s name is Calla. How many siblings does she have … What does the supper table look like: Is it full, is it sparse? What happened to their father?'”
She continues, “When it [came to] the day when I [could] finally hear the script out loud for the first time, all these people that have been running around in my head, all of a sudden, they [were] around the table, and I’m like, ‘Look, there she is! There he is!’ And it’s so thrilling.
“That’s the joy of the creative part for me,” Shaffer concludes.
For Bush, Troubadour was a creative challenge, but it was also cathartic in a way he never expected: There’s a specific moment in the play, when Billy and Joe are reconciling, that hit close to home for the singer-songwriter.
“I recently went through one of these moments, where it’s the moment — where my father did the impossible in my real life,” Bush shares. “He was diagnosed with an incurable liver disease, and he was going to die, and two or three months in the middle of this year, this summer, he began reconciling with me, and I thought we would never have that …
“I had written all the songs about that the whole year before … and I’m watching it be staged now, and I’m just completely moved at how unconscious we are as people who make things and how relevant they are later,” Bush adds.
Troubadour‘s cast is unique, says Foster: “It’s pretty rare to get a cast that not just sings, but they sing from a non-Broadway perspective, and they play their own instruments.” And though some may think of a musical and immediately have visions of Broadway’s major musical numbers, this play is different.
“There’s never a point in this play where somebody gets all excited about potato salad …,” Foster details, “which is perfectly acceptable in the Broadway tradition because it’s a musical … but this is really a play about young, struggling songwriters and an aging king of country music and a son struggling to figure out whether he’s gonna be able to rise to the occasion, what’s his career gonna be?”
Troubadour is set to open on Wednesday (Jan. 18), at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga., with shows scheduled through Feb. 12. Ticket information can be found at AllianceTheatre.org.
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