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Mon February 7, 2005
Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller
An unrepentant self-examination of Marshall Chapman's unconventional life.
By Don Noble
I have been meaning to read singer and songwriter Marshall Chapman's memoir for over a year.
Now I have and I am glad.
It is an unusual book, well-written and a real page-turner.
Lee Smith, an old friend of Chapman, has written the Foreword and tells us how the book came to be.
She, Jill McCorkle, Chapman, and a few other musicians were putting together their musical/literary review Good Ol' Girls, and Chapman, Smith writes, "had this habit of going off on a rattling jag before each song, a kind of free-form riff about where she was and who she was with, the circumstances in her life that had produced each song. We were spellbound."
Collaborator Paul Ferguson said, "You've got to write that down."
And Marshall Chapman did, organizing the book song by song, but still in a loose chronological way.
Marshall Chapman is from a mill town in South Carolina, but her family owned the mills.
After Salem Academy and Vanderbilt, Chapman rejected the upper-middle-class life and tried her hand in Nashville and the music business, and nearly everything else, apparently, that anyone made available.
A child of privilege, she tried mightily in Nashville to fit in, with sometimes comic results.
In her front yard, she planted a vegetable garden; she wanted to appear a girl of the soil, but when a friend one day on her front porch suggested, "Let's make some coleslaw," Chapman replied, "I didn't plant any coleslaw," as they both stood "looking at the prettiest row of cabbage you ever saw."
Chapman started out as a lounge singer and then began writing her own songs. You don't have to be rural and oppressed to write.
Almost any combination of childhood, adolescence, infatuation, heartbreak, alcohol, bad luck, controlled substances, and poor judgment will give you material for a country song.
Over a period of some 30 years, Chapman has written or co-written over 200 songs. She has eight albums, on four different labels, and has, after a tempestuous rock-and-roll life, come into a safe harbor.
She went through rehab and is now clean, sober, and in love with a man who is not--unlike many of her previous boyfriends--a speed freak who threatens to tear down the house, run amok, and need to be bailed out.
So this memoir is of a slightly different sort--not the story of a victim of abusive or neglectful parents or husband turned survivor, but rather the retrospective and fairly unrepentant teller of her own tale.
Marshall Chapman tells us without chagrin of her adventures--waking up in her own front yard one morning wearing only her panties, writing a string of songs while on Ecstasy, being afraid that, sober, she would lose the ability to write--"For years, I had subscribed to the Hank Williams syndrome, which says a writer must live a life of turmoil in order to be creative"--and then discovering, thankfully, that this was simply not the case.
When she started in the music business, it was more flexible, more risk-taking.
She writes, "I doubt an artist as talented and original as Willie [Nelson] could even get signed the way things are today. The country music business has become white-bread-with-the-edges-cut-off . . . homogenized . . . and hell, back then, Willie didn't even bathe on a regular basis."
She dates the crisis to 1980 when the movie Urban Cowboy sent the stockbrokers to the western apparel store for boots and hats, and Mickey Gilley's became the most famous bar in America with its mechanical bull, El Toro, ridden most famously by John Travolta, in short, when "Nashville became Nashvegas."
It was enough to drive anyone to drink.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.