Dr. Ian Foster didn’t know what to make of Jackson on his first visit here.
Now an Assistant Professor of English and Modern Foreign Languages at Jackson State University, Foster, on his first visit to campus, noticed nothing but trees.
“I thought ‘What is this place?’” he recalls of the cab ride to his hotel.
A tour around JSU gave him an appreciation for the capital city, but it was Fondren that sealed the deal.
“My first night I was Googling, maybe ‘places to eat’ or ‘good food,’ and I went to Babalu. I don’t know what would have happened if Fondren hadn’t existed. I said, ‘We’re in Brooklyn: how do I sell the Deep South to [my wife], Erin?’ This helped make the decision [to move to Jackson].”
Foster is a Washington native who graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle for his undergraduate studies and from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He received his PhD in 2015 and taught as a visiting professor at James Madison University before coming to Jackson. The JSU position is his first tenure track.
But don’t judge a book by its cover. Foster doesn’t seem like your typical professor. The heavy metal loving audiophile has a musical side that influences his life just as much as his educational work.
A guitarist since his teens, Foster grew up in the grunge era. With the influence of a percussive dad, he also drummed for a hard core band and a “really sad and mellow” band. It was the guitarist there whose folk finger picking style may have had the biggest influence.
Foster says a flea market find Japanese banjo his parents gave him in high school became crucial after his discovery of bluegrass music when he moved to New York City. “I heard the Stanley Brothers and those harmonies just killed me,” he says. Eagle Street Rodeo was the result, a two-person band with Brooklyn singer-songwriter Lisa Green. The sound was more bluegrass meets indie rock. “Not really punk but punk structured — and countryish,” Foster describes.
Living in Jackson now with songs he’s written, Foster wants to see if he could get a project going here. He calls the style “Indie Folk Banjo Punk.” Someone told him that was “Newgrass,” but he says, “I don’t know what that is!”
Foster’s had a couple of local responses and says he’s a bit surprised at the interest. “It seems to me a very weird project,” he laughs. “I’m excited to play some shows around Jackson because bluegrass and country is big here.”
Back on campus, Foster says the JSU position is “kind of the dream job” for PhDs. “It’s a lot more service in addition to the usual teaching and research. I’m involved in the creation of new programs and on the committee for the creation of the first Africana studies department at JSU.”
Foster notes JSU’s great history and tradition and mission, and says it’s part of his personal ethic to serve underserved and underrepresented populations. “I started out [teaching] in Queens, the most diverse place in U.S.,” he tells. “JSU’s mission and my own overlap. It’s a lot of work, but I’m so happy about it.”
His current teachings revolve around the early black Atlantic world, a 200 level world literature class and the development of a Caribbean literature program. Foster’s also working on his first book on African Literature and Immigration.
In Jackson just over three months, Foster and his wife, a graphic designer who works remotely for the University of Virginia, are settling in. Martins has become a haunt and Midtown holds a certain charm, he says. The Apothecary reminds them of Manhattan and Brooklyn Bars like Crif Dogs but Foster says he has another mission of discovery: “My goal is to find all the po-boys in Jackson and rate them. But it’s mostly about eating them.”