our culture of storytelling
Straight from A Woman's Heart
An Interview with Marshall Chapman
By Charlotte J. Robertson
All six feet of her dressed in starched white shirt and low-slung jeans -- allowing a peek at the baby-blue boxer shorts beneath, Marshall Chapman came striding into Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, on a balmy May evening with guitar in hand, her man at her side, and all the grace of the debutante her mother had wanted her to be. As the night progressed, it was easy to see she respects herself, her work, and her audience -- and her presence commands the same in return. Without missing a beat as she strummed, a small group at the keg, having gotten noisier as she presented, was told, "Ya'll settle down over there or I'll have to come over there and kick some ass. This baby up here in his Daddy's arms on the front row knows how to behave better than you."
When Marshall bonds, she bonds. Those packed into the coffee shop of Page & Palette were obviously touched when Marshall recognized a couple as the gentleman requested Marshall play and sing the song she had written for their son. The song had been written in mid-air as Marshall flew to the funeral of their son who had taken his own life. She had sung the song at his funeral service. And she sang it for his parents in Fairhope.
Whether she's cradling her guitar while she croons "Call the Lamas", or swiveling her hips as she belts out "Betty's Bein' Bad"(How bad? Bad, bad, bad), or reading aloud from her life's story, she has a signature style which whets the listener's appetite. Fans anticipate reading the short stories she's currently writing.
After her singing and reading from portions of her memoir, "Good-bye, Little Rock and Roller," in Fairhope, the line stretched around the bookstore and the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. Folks who had already bought the book were clammering for the book's companion CD featuring the dozen songs from which she'd borrowed the titles for naming the autobiography's chapters -- a dozen of the over 250 songs she's written for herself and other household names such as Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker, Tanya Tucker, and Olivia Newton John. Marshall's song "Leaving Loachapoka" was featured in the last music issue of "Oxford American" magazine. The irony is she'd never walked on soil in Loachapoka prior to her stop on the way home from Fairhope.
Just prior to the Page & Palette event, the store received the following e-mail: " My name is Rick Grossman. I lived in Fairhope for three years. It is one of my favorite places in the world, except for my home. I live in Paris. Demain soir -- you have a reading. Marshall and I have known each other for years. Good Luck with the reading and please give her my best. She is special."
Special she is.
When did you first realize you had the talent for songwriting? What was your first success?
The first song I ever wrote was "A Woman's Heart (Is a Handy Place To Be)". Around that time, I was asked to tour New Zealand and Australia with The Roger Miller Show. I'd never been west of the Mississippi River, so I was thrilled to have this opportunity. This was also my first experience on the road with a band.
After we were back in the states, I hung around Los Angeles for a couple of weeks. One night Willie Nelson was playing The Troubadour. I was in the audience, and when Willie went on, he said, "I'd like to welcome some friends of mine. Roger Miller's here tonight, And Bob Dylan. And Marshall Chapman, a young singer from Nashville." (I nearly fell out of my seat.) After the show, a bunch of us (including Willie) ended up at Roger's place. At the time, Roger was living in the aviary on the old John Barrymore Estate. We were all sitting around on the floor and a guitar was being passed around. When it came to me, I sang "A Woman's Heart (Is a Handy Place To Be)." When I finished, Roger turned to Willie and quoted one of my lines -- "Runnin' from a friend to find a stranger"? -- That ain't bad!" In that moment I thought, "I can do this!" What a night, huh?
Later, Crystal Gayle recorded "A Woman's Heart" on her first album. Then Jessi Colter recorded it on her second album.
What person has had the most profound influence on your life? In what way?
Probably Elvis Presley. I was taken to see him 'live' when I was seven years old. It presented a whole 'nother perspective. But throughout my adolescence, I was trying to fit in! I really thought I'd end up like my mother and her friends -- you know, have kids, marry some man, drive car pools, etc. Once I was through college, that "other perspective" began taking over my life.
What in your life makes you the proudest? The humblest?
At this point, the things that make me proudest are the very same things that make me the humblest. Finishing my book, getting it published, and now this nomination for the SEBA Book Award... I am very proud of these things, and also humbled. But I'm mostly proud for finishing the book because that was the only thing I had any control over. The publishing deal, the nomination... those are like "Wow! Cool!" I'm writing short stories now. Whenever I finish one -- or even during the process of writing when things just pop up that are magic -- it's exhilerating and at the same time very humbling. Nothing makes me happier at this stage of my life than finishing a piece of writing that I think is good, whether a song, book, or short story.
What kind of guitar do you play?
I have four guitars: a 1946 Martin D-28 which I've had since I was sixteen; a 1956 Stratocaster which I played during my rockin'-est years; a small, black Takamine which I've mostly been playing since 1990, and a midnight blue "Acoustasonic" Stratocaster -- the latest in technology from Fender -- that a friend gave me a couple of months ago. The first two are museum quality classics and therefore never leave the house. I mostly play the Takamine, which is a Japanese guitar. Sound technicians love that guitar because wherever you plug it in, it sounds great.
Obviously, you hear your own words as you write your songs and your autobiography. Now that you're writing short stories, do you hear other voices?
Good question. I think people who know my songs and have read my book, will recognize the voice in my short stories. In fact, I'm sure they will. Bobbie Ann Mason just read one -- my first (short story) -- and said: "It sounds exactly like your voice. I can hear you telling it."
You've lived a life others can only imagine and had your heroes for friends. What, thus far, was the most exciting moment in your life?
The older I get, the word "satisfying" seems to describe things that, in my youth, would have been "exciting."
I don't think I can pick ONE, but here's an off-the-top-of-my-head list:
1) Seeing Elvis live from the colored balcony at the Carolina Theater in Spartanburg, SC. I was seven years old (1956).
2) Making love for the first time (first orgasm, you name it. It all happened that night.) This was in NYC in 1970. I was 21 years old.
3) Hearing Willie Nelson for the first time in 1973.
4) That scene in the aviary at the John Barrymore estate, when I played the first song I ever wrote for a small roomful of people that included Roger Miller and Willie Nelson. ...Roger turned to Willie, quoted one of my lines --" 'Runnin' from a friend to find a stranger'?", then said "That ain't bad!" I was twenty-five years old (1974).
5) The first time I heard myself on the radio ("Somewhere South of Macon," 1977).
6) Seeing Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
7) Playing NYC the first time with my band. It was in a tiny club called Reno Sweeney. Didn't hold a hundred people. My father was there. But sitting on the front row, with his elbow propped on the stage, was Paul Simon. I looked down, saw him, and thought "Wait 'til he gets a load of this!" Madeleine Kahn and Arnold Schwartznegger were also in the audience.
8) Meeting Johnny Cash at CBS Records in Nashville. Before we were introduced, he said, "Oh, hi, Marshall! I really loved the way you did my song on your new album!" ("I Walk the Line" on Jaded Virgin, 1978).
9) Coming out of the Lincoln tunnel (on the Manhattan side) in a van with my band and suddenly hearing "Why Can't I Be Like Other Girls" blaring from the radio on WNEW. We were there to play the Bottom Line. This was 1979.
10) Hearing the Stones for the first time. (June, 1978 - described in book)
11) Playing the Hollywood Bowl with The Love Slaves. We opened for Jimmy Buffett.
12) Finishing Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (the book). It took five years because there were so many interruptions... thefts, relapses, home renovation... you name it.
13) Reading an email from novelist Jill McCorkle praising my book (June, 2002).
14) Reading the foreword that Lee Smith wrote for my book.
15) When my agent called and said we'd received a bid for my book.
16) When my agent called and said we'd received another bid for my book.
(We received a third, but by then, I'd moved on.)
17) Waking up this morning.
Who are your favorite authors? What book is on your bedside table at the moment?
Favorite authors? ... Truman Capote, Ellen Gilchrist, Willa Cather, Charles Buchowski, Sue Monk Kidd, Ann Lamott.
There's a stack of books on my bedside: For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason (re-read), The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, Above the Fall Line: The Trail from White Pine Cabin by Amy Blackmarr, Billy Collins' The Art of Drowning, Alice Randall's Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, and -- I'm afraid to say it, but reading trashy biographies is a weakness -- Memoirs of the Devil by Roger Vadim (!) That last one, I picked up at Bienville Books while in Mobile last week. It was published in 1977.
My favorite book of all time is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
One of the best books I've read in the last five years is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.
It is easy to see you are well-educated and have traveled beyond the confines of the United States. Give us a little of that background.
Well, I went to boarding school at Salem Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Graduated in 1967)
College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The summer before my Junior year, I toured Europe, then settled in Aix-en-Provence for my junior year abroad. From Aix, I took many excursions -- Chammonix, Grenoble, Paris, Arles, Avignon, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Milan, Portofino, Lago di Como, Barcelona, Madrid... but the most interesting was to Crete. I hitchhiked with a Canadian named Bill from Aix, all the way down the boot of Italy, over to Corfu, through Greece, and on to Crete where I lived in a Minoan cave near a town called Matala on the South side of the island with a bunch of hippies and drop-outs from the states. This was October,1969.
My senior year, I practically lived in NYC (I was in love, you see) and spent spring break in St. Moritz (Switzerland) skiing. I would basically commute to Vanderbilt from New York, just showing up for mid-terms and exams.
In 1973, I knocked around London with artist Stone Roberts, a family friend, for a few months. There was quite a contingent of Nashville/Vanderbilt gals over there. My best friend, Helen Bransford, was going with a young man named Isaac Tigret, who had just opened a hamburger joint near Piccadilly Circus called The Hard Rock Cafe.
I spent the winter of '73-74 living in Ketchum, Idaho, skiing all day and playing music all night.
In fall 1974, I toured New Zealand and Australia with Roger Miller.
I lived in Boston the fall and winter of 1975.
I spent the winter of 1977-1978 living with my band, Jaded Virgin, at the Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles. We were rehearsing and recording my second album for Epic at the Record Plant. Later, I was in Sausalito for a few weeks. The album was mixed at the Record Plant there.
For the next four years, I toured relentlessly. No glamour there, but you get to see some things.
I spent the winter of 1984 traveling alone in Belize.
Spent Christmas 1986 in Mexico.
In 1987, I toured the United States with Jimmy Buffett as a member of his Coral Reefer Band. We flew charter, hubbing out of major cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Birmingham, Charlotte, Richmond, St. Louis, Kansas City, Beverly Hills, Irvine, San Diego, Cincinnati, Detroit, Toronto... the usual big cities. The tour ended in Anchorage, Alaska, and then we were all in Hawaii for a week.
I toured the states again, opening for Jimmy, with my band, The Love Slaves in 1995.
Chris and I have traveled together... Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Carmel, New York (business trips). We spent Christmas of '92 in Chimayo north of Sante Fe. Christmas of '94 near Big Sur. For a while, we were going to England every year or so to visit his family. His stepmom, sister and nephew live in Chippenham which is about a hundred and twenty miles west of London.
Also, I have flown stowaway on quite a few charter flights with the Vanderbilt Women's Basketball Team!
Last summer, I played the Belgium Rhythm & Blues Festival with my band, The Love Slaves. This, after thinking I'd hung up my rock and roll shoes!
And now I've been to Fairhope! (Chris said only tonight, "That's one of the few places I've been with you, where I think I could live.")
Mobile was a dream,
Memphis got rough
I said Pack it up boys
I think I've had enough
You know the man in the suit wants Emmylou
Buddy, call your local DJ
Here's a dime for you
I must be crazy
Half out of my mind
But when those guitars ring
It gets me every time
I'm a rock and roll girl
Rock and Roll Girl (c)1978 Enoree Music(BMI) adm. by Bug Music
words & music by Marshall Chapman
Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller
by Marshall Chapman
Forward by Lee Smith
St. Martin's Press, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (259 pages)
© 2004, Charlotte J. Robertson, All Rights Reserved