Of all of the tributes in the wake of Wednesday’s unexpected death of bluegrass ambassador, Aaron “Frosty” Foster, this is what stands out to me the most:
Several people I interviewed volunteered that Aaron was their best friend. Several older than his 28 years proclaimed that he changed their lives dramatically for the better. And the entire bluegrass and old time program at East Tennessee State University, which he graduated from and worked for until his death, closed for two days to allow students and faculty to grieve.
And yet, through all the tears and flowery words, I can hear Frosty say something like, “Yeah, ok. Let’s pick.”
Frosty died at his home sometime Wednesday, a day after an emergency room visit for neck and arm pain.
After the ER visit, he posted on Facebook, “I somehow have compression fractures in my upper back and a pinched nerve in my back. I have no clue how or why it happened, but it did! I am ok, I will survive, yes it hurts…See you at the Station Inn February 19th!!”
Wednesday morning he joined a Zoom call with ETSU faculty. Program Director Dan Boner said he reported feeling fine and was looking forward to getting back with his band students “tomorrow.”
But for Aaron “Frosty” Foster, tomorrow never came.
Frosty lived and breathed bluegrass. One of his earliest memories was his grandpa leading him to the stage at a festival in upstate New York. Later, his grandparents gave him his first real guitar, a Martin that remained his most prized possession.
“Nobody loves bluegrass more than Frosty,” said ETSU program director Dan Boner, still unable or unwilling to speak of him in past tense. “He was always appreciative of the chance strap on his guitar and play music.”
John Goad met Foster – he hadn’t gained his nickname yet – when a newcomer walked up to him and a friend and asked a series of rapid fire questions: “Do you have guitars? Do you play bluegrass? I’m here for bluegrass.” Late into the night, they sat at a table outside a dormitory and picked.
But Aaron wasn’t just about music. He was one of the gentlest, tenderest, most gracious guys, in bluegrass or anything else. And he was a joker, the guy who took everything in stride and kept everybody loose.
“He was a character,” Goad said. “Not just with a capital C, but with all the letters capitalized. Some people march to their own drum. Frosty marched to a whole damn band.”
He kept band mates loose on long road trips, acting as part cheerleader, part entertainer, part fixer.
“He was the most easygoing, fun guy ever,” said Nashville bandleader and long-time close friend Michelle Canning. “He was serious about his music, but he loved to joke.”
She and Aaron met at the Jenny Brook festival. “I was 12. He was 13. We’ve been best friends ever since. He was always there,” she said. He stayed up late chatting with her one night when she was hurting, and he readily agreed to be her prom date after Rhonda Vincent called her bluff when Canning jokingly asked after a show if she could have the Queen of Bluegrass’s dress to wear.
“We don’t know how we can replace him,” she said about the remaining members of the Michelle Canning Band. “But he would want us to keep going, so we sure will.”
Similar sentiments came from Amanda Cook, who leads a band Frosty had been part of for the last two-and-a-half years.
“We had so much to accomplish together,” she said. “It’s going to take us a while, but we will definitely forge ahead and make him proud.”
Frosty was her biggest cheerleader, but he also kept her grounded.
“One day he said to me, ‘when you win your first IBMA award, I’m going to find the ugliest picture I’ve taken of you, and have them put it up there on the big screen,'” she recalled.
“I’ve never had a connection with someone so quickly,” she added. “I’ve never been around a person who was filled with so much joy and light. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having him in my life for the last two-and-a-half years.”
At the moment, Foster and Troy Boone, partners in Boone and Foster, have the number six song on the weekly Bluegrass Today chart with Country Fool.
Boone’s first meeting with Aaron remains memorable for someone who was a bit nervous as the new kid on campus. “I heard a gentle, joyful voice say, ‘hey man, are you Troy Boone?’
“Throughout my time as a student…Frosty was there every second. We arranged our first recorded projects together in his apartment, we ate lunch together, we shared a love for every goofy ’90s comedy put to tape. Frosty was my best friend…He answered every call, and truly cared for those around him.”
In fact, unanswered calls and unreturned texts were the first indications that something was wrong. His roommate found him unresponsive and called 911. Boner, who lives nearby, arrived a short time later.
Frosty was sitting in a chair, his phone nearby on the floor. The coroner was on the way.
“I realized how fragile life is, and how we need to treat each other with kindness and understanding and forgiveness, and all of those virtues that Frosty embodied,” Boner said.
Two final anecdotes capture Foster’s love of music, of fun, and of family.
One day, Goad’s band was supposed to play for tips at The Coffee House, a dive bar on West Walnut Street, a few blocks from the ETSU campus in Johnson City, TN. They got a paying gig, and bailed, but not before asking Aaron to fill in for them. He agreed, even though he didn’t have a band, and set out to recruit some friends to play. When the club owner asked for the name of the replacement band, his friends as a practical joke, invested one on the spot: Frosty and the Snowballs.
“We called him Frosty from then on,” Goad said. He called himself that, too, able to laugh along with everybody else.
The other is a demonstration of his love and gratitude for his grandparents.
When Aaron moved from upstate New York to eastern Tennessee, Goad recalled that his grandfather would drive for hours just to hear Frosty play for 15 minutes, then make the long trip home. Of course, he played the music his grandparents taught him to love, on the guitar they bought for him with the help of Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers.
Frosty never forgot. A year or two ago, Frosty set out to honor them with a song, and he asked Canning, Dawn Kenney, and I to help write it. As we talked, he said his grandparents were like angels without wings.
That became the title of the song that he hoped to surprise them with on an upcoming Gospel CD. Alas, those plans died with him.
This is the last verse:
Maybe someday I can be
All they have been for me
Someone else’s blessing,
An angel without wings
In his short time among us, Aaron “Frosty” Foster certainly accomplished that before becoming an angel with wings.
Mark Hodges, whose Mountain Fever label recorded Amanda Cook, and Boone & Foster, called Frosty “a mountain of a young man with a smile as big as the sky, and always so positive…Godspeed, and give us one more G-run, Frosty.”
As Boner so elegantly and eloquently noted in a message to ETSU faculty and staff, “How fortunate we are that Frosty was here with us, for as long as he could be, to brighten our lives with his guitar and glowing smile.”