“They Came to Nashville”
Author: Marshall Chapman, with a Foreword by Peter Guralnik
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Pages: 282 Price: $25.00 (Cloth)
Marshall Chapman, Nashville singer-songwriter, is now the author of about 400 songs and has cut 12 albums at last count.
Her songs have been recorded by musicians ranging from Conway Twitty to EmmyLou Harris to Jimmy Buffett.
She was an unlikely country star. Far from being a coal miner’s daughter, Chapman was a mill owner’s daughter, a debutante from Spartanburg, South Carolina.
While a student at Vanderbilt –a French major!—Chapman fell in love with the music and the city around her. That was forty years ago and she has never really left. In her first book, the memoir Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, Chapman described the Nashville country music scene. With vivid, even painful, honesty, she recounted the saga of her career and of the long, wild party, and her enthusiastic participation in it, including forty days in rehab some twenty years ago.
That book did well and Chapman contracted the need to tell stories in prose as well as lyrics. This second book is not a sequel. Rather, Chapman, who knows all the players, sets out to tell other people’s stories as well as her own. The original plan for this project was to interview a great many music industry friends and publish the results. The questions were to be few and the same for all: when did you first come to Nashville, how did you get here, where were you before, and so on.
These Q’s and A’s are in the book, but as the Elvis biographer Peter Guralnik wryly informs us in his introduction, the fun in this volume of 15 chapters is in Chapman’s lead-in to each interview and in the digressions: the stories and memories that those questions, themselves unimportant, generated.
For example, Chapman met a scruffy Kris Kristofferson back in 1968 at a party in a room in the Ramada Inn. Kristofferson was playing and singing a song with what seemed like incomplete lyrics.
“La de-dah de-dah de-dah –dah, la de-dah de-dah” part of it went. With chagrin, Chapman confesses she was not impressed. The song is “Bobby McGee.”
Kristofferson, who had been an Army captain and helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and a Rhodes scholar, lived in such poverty and squalor that when his apartment was robbed, the investigating police said, “Wow, they really trashed the place.” “And of course [the thieves] hadn’t touched it!”
Marshall Chapman is also long-time friends with Willie Nelson. She is fond of saying she’s known Willie Nelson since 1973, before he was Willie Nelson, that is, before “Red-headed Stranger.”
The chapter devoted to Willie is the longest, 45 pages, and the best in the book. Chapman is advised to email Nelson; she writes “Willie does email? I couldn’t believe it.” She calls and finally connects. Willie invites her to join his tour and Chapman is on the road again, with Willie and his friends, from Memphis to Beaumont to Willie’s ranch outside Austin.
Chapman joins that three-bus cavalcade and reports on it beautifully. Almost no sleep, but no cigarette smoke; near constant singing and playing, especially duets between Willie and his older sister, Bobbie. Of the bus at night Chapman writes: “This is Willie World at its deepest, most soulful level.”
Chapman never gets the interview, but not because Willie fears kiss and tell. He tells her: “My reputation is the kind you can’t ruin.”