Marshall Chapman is not the person to ask about career strategy. She's managed to have a captivating career without anything remotely resembling a plan. There was one thing, and one thing only, on her mind in the days when she made her sharp-witted, neo-rockabilly album, Jaded Virgin, in 1978.
"I was so single-minded about [just wanting] to rock 'n' roll," she says, holding court for this one-person audience in her west Nashville home. (Wherever Chapman happens to be at any given time, there's a good chance that she's holding court, as only an extremely bright, well-bred yet gleefully irreverent South Carolinian can.)
And the fact that she's got a new album (her 12th, counting a live one and a compilation), a new book (her second) and a film (her first) coming out around the same time? Most definitely unplanned. "I've never thought about the long-term," she says. "I really haven't. And I don't now. I mean, I just did an interview where somebody said, 'All right, what do you wanna do after all this?' My answer to that is I'm gonna go to Mexico and find some canyon where you get no cell phone reception and wash my clothes in the creek. That's my official statement. It almost seems like all this stuff is just stuff that's happened while I'm trying to do something else."
What Chapman had been trying to do was write a whole book's worth of short stories with the title They Came to Nashville. But having lived the sort of unpredictable life she has, her fiction ideas were soon overshadowed by verities. " 'The night I met Billy Joe Shaver my hair caught on fire'— the minute I wrote that line I was like, 'Shit.' I saw the whole book. I decided then I can make stuff up but I'm not sure I can make up anything that's more interesting than what I know."
The title stuck, but the book itself morphed into a collection of 15 interviews with some of the town's important singers and songwriters, past and present, on the subject of how and why they ended up chasing their musical dreams here. Chapman begins with Kris Kristofferson and arrives at Willie Nelson by way of Miranda Lambert, John Hiatt, Ashley Cleveland, Gary Nicholson, Bobby Bare and several more besides.
She had had no intention of making a new solo album, though she liked the idea of cutting some duets with her songwriter-guitarist cohort Tim Krekel. "We just kept talking about it and every now and then we'd write a song that might be good on it," she says. "But we never really rolled up our sleeves and started it." Tragically, before they could, Krekel received a cancer diagnosis and was gone. Chapman then found herself recording a tribute album: "This sounds weird, but I was making it for him. I wasn't making it for myself. And that just changed everything." Big Lonesome is what she ended up with, a close-to-the-bone country, folk and blues set that's equal parts mourning and celebration.
As for the movie, Country Strong, Chapman plays road manager to Gwyneth Paltrow's country-singing character, though she's not sure how many of her own lines made the final cut. She'd gotten a Facebook message saying that the casting director was looking for her, and decided she might as well read for the part; at the very least she'd get a good story out of it. "I found out later 36 actresses had read for it — like, bona fide actresses," she says, deeply amused. "I'd never been in a school play, not even in junior high."
Strictly speaking, Chapman's new book and album aren't about her. She'd already offered up colorful autobiographical vignettes in her first one, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, and in plenty of her songs. But the fact remains that she is the essential ingredient in these two latest projects. Put another way: Marshall Chapman does the sorts of things that only Marshall Chapman could do. Her relationships with the songwriters in They Came to Nashville color the telling of their stories, just as her connection with Krekel gives Big Lonesome its heartbeat.
You get the sense that even after 40-plus years here, she's still caught up in the heady mystery of how — every once in a blue moon — talent, gumption and luck align, that she appreciates artistry even more now than she did at 20 and that she's glad, and a little amazed, to be the age that she is: "Make sure you say I'm 61," she says. "I'll be 62 in January."
And she sounds like she means it. "Shit yeah! I'm the age my father was when he died. I think about that just about every waking moment, in a good way. I just can't believe I'm still alive, you know. Let's start with that."
well fuck you anon! Go and Catch fire!
The guitar is a custom made Gretsch he used on the Raconteurs tours...sweet. I couldn't…
I knew him before the beard.
Sometimes I think snowman69 makes good points. But I think he's way off the mark…