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Marshall Chapman 2004


by Michael Buffalo Smith
April 2004

Marshall Chapman has created quite a name for herself in Nashville as one of Music City’s finest songwriters. Not only that, but she is also a highly skilled singer and guitarist whose music is a cross between Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings with a dash of Billy Joe Shaver. This year, Marshall had her first book published to critical acclaim. Goodbye Little Rock and Roller is an autobiographical masterpiece.

We spoke with Marshall about the book, her music and life in the South.

Tell us just a bit about growing up in South Carolina and your life, without giving too much of the book away.

I grew up in Enoree and Spartanburg in the ‘50s and early '60s. I was from a well-to-do family. The most remarkable thing about it, now that I have some perspective, is the role blacks played. This, of course, was during Jim Crow. We had a black sitter living with us full time, a black cook and a black yardman who lived in our backyard. This influenced my music.

How did you become such a fan of Elvis?

I was taken to see him at age seven by our black cook. This was in Feb. 1956 at the Carolina Theater in Spartanburg. So I saw him from the “colored balcony” as it was called. There is a passage about this in my book.

Tell us a couple of musical experiences from your youth that may have contributed to your becoming a performer and songwriter?

Seeing all the great black acts that came through...Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, The Shirrelles, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs, Little Stevie Wonder. Also, my first night at summer camp — Camp Pinnacle near Hendersonville, NC— this girl named Debbie Dial got up and sang a song while playing a ukulele. All the girls screamed like she was Elvis. I must have made a mental note right then, because it wasn’t long before I was learning to play the ukulele!

I remember seeing you with Marshall Tucker Band at their 1977 Homecoming show in Spartanburg. What are your memories of MTB?

I didn’t know them growing up. I had heard of Paul (Riddle) because he went to Spartanburg High School. The rest of the band went to Dorman. Joe McConnell was their manager and I knew him real well because both our families went to the First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg growing up. Musically, I liked them. And I remember that night. We didn’t know each otherat the time. I started getting to know them when they came to Nashville to record with Tom Dowd. This was in 1980, I believe. Tommy was dead. Franklin Wilkie had just joined the band.George McCorkle lives in Nashville now and we have written a song together. I feel like he’s a brother. Also, I see a lot of novelist Jill McCorkle. She’s a real close friend. We wrote a musical together with Lee Smith and Matraca Berg called Good Ol’ Girls that toured the South last fall. Jill’s originally from Lumberton, NC. Turns out, she and George are cousins. They look like they’re kin, too. There’s a strong family resemblance.

But back to the MTB. I always admired them for making it like they did while staying in Spartanburg. Most times, you have to move to Nashville, New York, London or Los Angeles to get anything going in the music business, but the MTB stayed home and did it.

Who would you say played the most important part (other than yourself) in encouraging you to become an artist?

Hard to say. I don’t think there was anyone encouraging me. There were so many discouraging me — I think that more than anything was what motivated me.

Did you know Waylon? We have all read the famous quote he made about you.

Yeah, I knew Waylon and Jessi pretty well. Jessi used to take me to church. I think she was worried about my soul there for a while! Waylon was a true original. Not only in his music, but in the way he lived. He wasn’t educated to speak of, but he was smart! He’d say some of the damnedest things. Once he said: “I can jump as high as I ever could, I just can’t stay up as long.”

What have been some of your most rewarding musical moments?

Oh, let’s see: When I played to a SRO audience at the Bottom Line in NYC November 19, 1979. Only because my record company wanted me to share the night with Walter Egan because they didn’t think I’d draw a big enough crowd. We held our ground. I’ll never forget riding in a cab to that show. I got out with my Stratocaster and the people lined around the block started applauding and shouting at me.

You played with Buffett some. When was that and what was the experience like?

I was a Coral Reefer in 1987. Then recorded two albums for his label in 1995 and 1996. The Love Slaves and I opened all his shows in 1995. He treated us so good. We got to eat with him and his band before every show, and that’s the best food I’ve ever had anywhere. Buffett has the road thing down. What was it like? More fun than the law should allow. Pure fun and escapism.

Of your own songs, what are some of your favorites and why?

Well, I always say “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller” is my favorite. Artistically, I guess it is. “Betty’s Bein’ Bad” is a favorite because it got me off the streets. It was a number one hit for Sawyer Brown in 1986. I love the way the recorded versions of “A Mystery To Me” and “Better To Let Her Go” came out on my Love Slave album (1996). We just did CD re-issues on my first three Epic albums. I hadn’t listened to that stuff in over twenty years. When I heard “Why Can’t I Be Like Other Girls?” I was blown away! The ENERGY in that record — Holy Moses!

Who are some of the artists that have covered your tunes?

Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, Sawyer Brown, Tanya Tucker, Dion, the actress— Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Uppity Blues Women, Tammy Faye Starlite, Crystal Gayle, Jessi Colter, Johnny Lee, Wynonna, The Earl Scruggs Revue...

How do you go about songwriting? Lyrics or music first, or title?

A lot of times, I start with a title. Usually the music and words start together. Do you procrastinate in completing a song (I do!) ... Doesn’t every writer? Or do you feel driven to complete the song at the time? I have worked with a deadline, so I can do that. But I enjoy more working in the fullness of time.

Do you write songs from true life more often, or from fictionalsituations?

Mine are nearly always inspired by real life situations.

Who are your musical heroes?

Hank Garland, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker, Eddie Angel..

What about in the field of songwriting?

Kris Kristofferson, Cindy Walker, John Stewart, Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Mercer,...

What are some of your recent and future musical or literary projects?

Most recent is my book Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. Today I started writing a song called “I Got the Flu!” Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at fiction — you know, short stories.

When did you first decide to write a book and why?

I always knew I’d write this book. It was an idea I’d had for years. I just never thought I’d sit still long enough to do it. But once I began, I knew I’d finish it. I started writing it in August, 1998. it took me five years.

How hard was it to get a publisher?

It wasn’t hard, bacause I had Lee Smith as a mentor from day one of writing. Lee gave my first draft to an agent friend of her's in New York. The agent loved what I was doing so I signed with her. In the summer of 2002, she got me my deal with St. Martin’s Press.

We have a lot of musicians who read Gritz. Tell us what kind of guitars and amps you use and your favorites.

Oh, it’s changed over the years. I recently bought a great new guitar from Fender. A friend of Danny Flowers works in the marketing department there (at Fender), and he wanted me to play it. It’s an “Acoustasonic” Stratocaster. It looks like a solid body, but it isn’t quite. I am loving playing it! It’s midnight blue. The body is graphite, but the neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard. It’s real light to carry, which I find more and more appealing the older I get. I sold all my amps about ten years ago because I got tired of lugging them around. I’ve played a Takamine during that time, so all I had to do was plug into a direct box. Sound people loved that guitar. It always sounded great. But I regret selling my amps. Especially my Roland with the Chorus effect that sounded so good with my Fender 12-string whenever I played songs in a minor key. I bought that amp the first year they were made and those always sound the best. Hanging on my wall in my office are a ‘56 Stratocaster and a 1947 Martin D-28. I played a series of Telecasters during my rockin’ years. I was rockin’ so hard, I don't remember what happened to them. Our equipment truck was stolen one night in Cleveland while we were checking into the Holiday Inn on Euclid Ave. This was in 1979. Fortunately, I had taken my ‘56 Strat with me to my room, which I didn’t usually do. But my Fender 12-string was on the truck and I never saw it again. And I never played another 12-string because I could never find one that played as good as that one. Leo Fender gave me that guitar in 1976.

I asked you this several years ago, but it’s the dawning of a new day now. Your ten favorite albums of all time?

Van Morrison - Enlightenment
Grievous Angel - Gram Parsons with Emmyou Harris.
Phases and Stages - Willie Nelson
Marianne Faithful - Broken English
Dreaming My Dreams - Waylon
Chet Baker Sings!
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
Morphine - Cure for Pain
Soundtrack from LA Confidentail

I‘d be curious to see how this one compares with the one I did before, especially since it’s off the top of my head.

I meet a lot of artists who have pets. Do you have a pet?

I am petless at the present. For years I had a big yellow cat named "Doc" -- he was named after legendary songwriter Doc Pomus ("Save the Last Dance for Me" "Little Sister, " "Youngblood")

Would you share your thoughts on the state of the nation?

I think the United States, philosophically, peaked in the '50s and has been in a state of decline ever since. We lost our innocence as a country with the JFK assassination and as a member of the world community in the aftermath of 9/11.

What do you feel each of us can do to help make the world a better place?
Turn off the TV! Travel. Read about other cultures. Strive to understand other cultures. Drop the "Us" vs "Them" mentality. A favorite quote:

"If only it were all so simple. If only we could take all the evil people in the world and somehow separate them from the rest of us. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who would dare cut out a piece of his own heart?" -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Any advice to someone considering a career in music?
Depends on what area of the music business you're talking about. If it's songwriting, or being a recording artist, I'd say 'keep your day job' until you see that first five-figure check!

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