Marshall Chapman: Songwriter

MARSHALL CHAPMAN is one of the absolute greatest songwriters.  I had pursued an interview with her for years, and finally an interview took place in Decatur, Georgia.  Her album Big Lonesome was one of the greatest albums released in 2011.  The album was a memorial to the great songwriter Tim Krekel

PART ONE

PART TWO

Ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to welcome singer, song-writer, recording artist, spoken-word artist and author, Marshall Chapman.

And now ‘actor’.

And now ‘actress’ – right (laughs). And she’s just released her newest album, Big Lonesome, as well as her second book entitled They Came to Nashville.

Right.

It’s a great pleasure.

Thank you. Thanks for having me, Paul.

Who is Marshall Chapman?

What a question. Marshall Chapman is a six-foot tall, skinny white girl from South Carolina who went to Nashville, who loves music, who at age 62 is still out there having, like, the year of her life. Um, I’m having a lot of fun right now. If I had known you could have this much fun at my age I would have relaxed a lot more when I was in my 20s and 30s. But who is Marshall Chapman? You know, I’m probably the last person to ask that. Tim Krekel said it best. Uh, the song we wrote, Sick of Myself, it started as an email from me to Krekel. I just was thinking I really was sick of myself that day. I was thinking if I could be somebody else for a day, maybe two, who would it be? Tim Krekel. I’d like to know what it’s like to be laid back and cool / To play that guitar the way that you do / Like your soul is connected to every string / And the whole room starts swaying when you’re playing that thing. And then two hours later, he emails me back. Well I’m sick of myself. I’d like to be you. Would you trade places with me for a day, maybe two? And you asked the question ‘who is Marshall Chapman?’ and I think Tim Krekel answered it in that song. He said I’d like to know how it feels to be regal and tall / To charm a whole room with that Carolina drawl / To rock with a purpose like ole Jerry Lee / While wearing your soul on your rock and roll sleeves. And if there’s ever a tombstone to mark my passing, those are the words I want to have on it.

Sometimes music says things so well. So from the Marshall Chapman album, Big Lonesome, Sick of Myself, here on the Paul Leslie Hour – the beautiful thing about this album is that the songs, to me, they seem to be very cohesive.

Thank you.

I can relate to all of them. I didn’t know Tim Krekel as well as you do but as someone who knew him, they all seem to go together. So what do you think about the album, Big Lonesome?

Well, I just think it’s, by far, the best album I’ve ever made. And I tell people, you know – first of all, I wasn’t going to make another album. I was really burnt out. I was writing a book. Um, I’m a contributing editor to Garden & Gun magazine – weird name, I know. Um, I have a column with National Arts magazine. So I’ve been writing a lot of prose and that seemed to be a very quiet, contemplative kind of life and I was enjoying it. I was even joking, telling friends of mine that I’ve tried not to write songs because if I write them and they’re good, I’m going to record them. If I record it and it’s good, then my ass is back out on the road. I know how to nip that off in the bud. That was my thinking. And then Tim Krekel was diagnosed with cancer – died within three months of his diagnosis. He was my best friend in music – probably best friend period – and we were very close. And it rocked my world, Paul. And the only thing that seemed to comfort me, going through that experience of Tim’s death, was picking up my guitar. And every time I did, a song poured out. And when I wrote Tim Revisited I just thought I’m doing to do an album and I’m going to make the best album I can possibly make to honor my friend, and that’s what I did.

So let’s play it – Tim Revisited, from Big Lonesome. [song plays] We’re talking to Marshall Chapman. The album starts off with the title song and in the liner notes it says that it was recorded in a Pullman car parked in Union Station?

(Laughs) Correct. I mean, I had a friend named Tommy Spurlock. He’s now down in Austin, Texas but he actually was living in one Pullman car, then right behind it was another Pullman car and they were parked right on a track behind Union Station in Nashville. And he had converted one into living space and the other one into a recording studio. But even though he had the walls padded, when the trains would move in the train yard, you’d have to stop recording because you – it, the noise would bleed through the walls. So it was a real challenge to record there but I think Dave Olney recorded in there with him and also the guy that wrote, um, Wild Thing and Angel in the Morning – Chip, Chip Taylor – I think recorded an album there with Spurlock. He had it briefly and then he kind of just took off for Austin and disappeared. And so, when I decided to do this record, I didn’t have a copy of the, you know, multi-track of that song and I knew I wanted to include it. I had gotten in contact with him and he couldn’t find it. He looked, he couldn’t find it. So I – finally I sent him a check just for his troubles and sometimes money talks (laughs) but, uh, within a week he had sent the ADAT tape of that. We converted it to Pro-tools and the amazing thing was when we were listening to it in the studio, I was – I co-produced this album with Michael Utley, who I love working with. And the reason I chose Michael was because Michael and I co-produced Love Slave, which is probably my favorite studio album until Big Lonesome and now Big Lonesome is my favorite. But anyway, we went in the studio and when we were listening to, uh, converting it to Pro-tools, I didn’t realize Tim’s voice – you know, we were just in the train just goofing off. We had written a song, we were demo-ing a lot of songs, but I liked the way Big Lonesome sounded. And it’s one of my three favorite songs. We’ve written a ton of songs together but there are three that are my favorite that I’ve written with Tim. One is Big Lonesome, one is I Love Everybody, I Love Everything and the other one is Sick of Myself which actually I finished after he died. I mean, he – it was just an email, sort of a love email from me to him and him back to me, and I kind of thought it should be in the shuffle. And then when I decided to make the record, you know, I sat down and put it to music.

Just a moment ago you mentioned Michael Utley who co-produced the album. What’s it like working with him?

Oh, he’s just – well for me it’s just heaven. We work really well together. Mike’s a very positive person and um, and he digs what I do, you know? I mean, I’ve always said happiness is hanging around people who dig you. I don’t purport to be everyone’s cup of tea so, uh, happiness is hanging around people that like you and I like Mike. We were neighbors at the time. He’s since moved to California much, much to my chagrin but he lived right around the block. So I said, you know, I want to do this album to honor Tim. And, of course, we had all been in Buffett’s band together. That’s really when I got to know Tim Krekel. I may be answering one of your subsequent questions but, um, we were in Buffett’s band in 1987 and that’s when I really got close to Tim. He was my favorite person to hang out with, ‘cause with Jimmy, by then, there was a lot of days off.

Yeah.

So you’re hubbing out of some city like Chicago or New Orleans, you know. Jimmy had it down by then. You’d be in, you’d be in some great hotel in New Orleans and you’d hub out and go play Biloxi and you’d go play Houston and you’d play New Orleans and you’d come back to the hotel, with lots of days off in between gigs. So you got time to go to museums and go see movies so we starting hanging. He was just an easy-going guy.

My favorite song on the album is Falling through the Trees.

Ahh, you have good taste.

Yeah, I do (laughs). I pride myself on that.

You do. No, you have depth, man. Thank you. Falling through the Trees – actually, I wrote that when my last album came out, Mellowicious!, which was sort of an experiment and, um, I was working with a guy that was sort of the synthesizer king of Nashville and I learned a lot doing that record. And after doing that record, I was just convinced that this record would be completely organic. Falling through the Trees, when I realized that last record wasn’t going to make it, um, I was just heart-broken because I had invested so much into it. and, uh, I just woke up one night in the middle of the night and wrote that song. And it’s, you know, it’s about the death of a dream. And the same thing, really, is the Cindy Walker song – Going Away Party – so I just thought they were great bookends. They just seemed to flow so well, one into the other. But Falling through the Trees, if there’s one line – you know, I’m sitting there talking about the heartbreak of when dreams die but the line that saves it is I wouldn’t have it any other way. That keeps it from sliding into victimhood …

Right.

and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s cool that you mentioned that because William Gay, the novelist, who’s my favorite writer in America, he listened to the album early on and that was his favorite – Falling through the Trees – and he’s the deepest cat I know.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah.

Well, I think nobody said it better than Todd Snider when he said, uh, ‘The album is sad but not hopeless.’

Yeah, ‘like blood on the tracks.’

Oh, I thought that was a perfect description of this album.

Yeah. Todd is like my brother. I love him.

One of the other songs on the album is a cover of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

Right. Well, you know I was down in Mexico. Um, Tim and I were supposed to go to Mexico and play a bunch – we had a bunch of gigs booked for that summer and he died June, you know, it was June 24th or June 26th of 2009 – and we were supposed to go to Mexico and play some gigs. I have a benefactor in Mexico that flies me and my husband down there and puts us up in a house with, like, a cook, maid service, pool – all that. And it’s on a mountain overlooking of San Miguel, which – San Miguel is on a high mountain plain at 10,000 feet. And people think ‘You’re going to Mexico in July?’ You wear a sweater at night. It is so fabulous. It’s so magical and it’s always been a magnet, that town, for poets and dreamers. It’s where – Jack Kerouac used to hang out down there. In fact, Neal Cassady, that’s where he died, in San Miguel. He got hit by a train down there. It still is a real magnet but – help me keep on track, OK?

(Laughs) Oh, yeah.

But anyway, so I got down there. Tim, the promoter, my benefactor/promoter – when Tim died, we had a plane ticket for him and Debbie to fly down there with us – he said ‘I can understand if you wouldn’t want to come down tonight.’ I said ‘I need to come to Mexico. I’m coming.’ So I wrote that song, Down to Mexico, on the plane flying down there. And when I got down there I played a benefit and then I played a private party at this guy’s house and a benefit called ‘Feed the Hungry’ or ‘Feed the Children’ – yeah – and Tim was supposed to play it with me and I played it by myself. But, um, after the second gig, this expatriate from Mississippi – and there’s a song in there called Mississippi Man in Mexico that was also written, I wrote that on the plane flying home – but we went out to this rancho outside of San Miguel, Rancho Jaguar. And we get there and it’s in this field but this guy grows, he cultivates cacti, cactuses, that he, you know, ships all over the world. And he, uh, he’s from Mississippi. He’s also a great cook and he had dug all these pits that he had mesquite logs burning in them, and when we got there they were hot coals. And he had all these doves he had shot that he had wrapped with bacon and he was roasting them over those mesquite logs, and he just prepared this feast for us. And it was just one of those nights – you know, there’s no night pollution down there. We’re out in the country. You can see all the stars and the moon was full. And I leaned back after that meal and this one little single cloud in the sky moved across the moon and it turned purple. And I thought about Hank Williams. And in that moment I wanted a guitar to materialize in my hands because I wanted to sing that verse in I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, ‘the moon just went behind the cloud to hide its face and cry’. And I was thinking about that song because I used to sing it. I used to sing all these songs. I used to know about 350 songs by heart before I started writing my own songs. You know, I would play in lounges and sing these songs and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry was one of them. But ever since I started writing songs, I quit singing them. And so, that night I’m at my benefactor’s house with his teenage son, Mark, and I started – there was a guitar there and I just started singing all these songs I used to sing, just to see if I could still remember them, before I started writing songs. Songs like Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer, Bob Wills. Songs like Bye Bye Love, the Everly Brothers. Songs like, uh, Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley. Songs like Every Day by Buddy Holly. From Four Until Late by Robert Johnson. To Be Alone with You by Bob Dylan. Uh, all these songs that I just love. And I couldn’t remember the words to I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry so his son downloaded them off the internet. And for the next few nights – we were staying in this house that had this big courtyard and it had great echo in it, you know, like natural echo? Like Sun Records – and I’d get up, because I had my guitar with me, and I’d sing I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry in there and it just sounded so great and it was exactly how I felt because my friend had just died. So I just knew, you know, when I wrote Mississippi Man in Mexico, I knew that song was going to come right after it and it just seemed so – they just, they sounded so good together.

You nailed it.

Yeah. You know, I’ve had a lot of people tell me, you know, and I put that augmented chord in there and I don’t think anybody – I know Hank didn’t have it in there but there’s been probably 300 people record that song but I don’t think – and I think BJ Thomas’s version was pretty good but I’ve had a lot of people tell me that this version is their favorite. Somebody said it’s their favorite along with BJ Thomas’s. But, uh, I think, uh, when we recorded this, man, it felt so good. I felt that Hank was probably smiling.

Wow.

Yeah. I felt like we did it justice. And I do feel like that song has the most beautiful quatrain ever written in a song which is The silence of a fallen star / Lights up a purple sky / And as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. I probably answered three or four of your questions.

No – great answer. Great story.

Alright. What’cha got?

There is a book that you have and it’s called They Came to Nashville.

Right.

It’s a collection of interviews. One of the chapters I thought was very entertaining. It’s the Willie Nelson chapter (Marshall laughs) and you’ve got a track on the album called –

Don’t give it away! Well, it’s interesting you bring that up. The new CD and the new book were released on the same day but, unlike my first book when we released a companion CD, this new CD was about Tim Krekel. But there is one connection to the book and it’s what you mentioned. It’s riding with Willie. I spent three days on Willie Nelson’s bus trying to interview him for the book and we won’t give away what happens but, you know, I write an intro for each chapter. Each chapter is a songwriter I’ve known. Each chapter I write an intro. Some of the intros are a paragraph long, a half page long. Well, the Willie Nelson chapter, my intro is 46 pages long. And you know, some of the critics have described it as up there with Hunter Thompson as far as rock and roll journalism because, man, I was out there. I did not sleep one minute while I was on the bus. I was literally hallucinating when we pulled up to the Beaumont Holiday Inn. And when we did, as often happens when I’m in a state like that, these words starting coming and they were pretty cosmic, more cosmic than I usually write. You know, When everything is swirling around out of control / And everybody’s down to their very soul / Dancing to the rhythm of the universal whole – I don’t think I would normally write a lyric like that unless I’d been on Willie Nelson’s bus for three days, because let me tell you something. You don’t have to partake, you just breathe, OK? It’s there. So I was probably out there in my mind a little bit when I wrote that. But I just wrote it as two verses and kind of a chorus. I thought it was a poem. I wasn’t even sure it was a song. And then exactly a year later almost to the date, when I decided I was going to make a record to honor Tim Krekel, I was sitting at my desk and ‘I thought I need to look at those lyrics.’ And I finished the song, writing two more verses about what happened on Willie’s bus after the Beaumont show, which is – I don’t know about you but if I was 75 years old and been touring for three weeks playing one-nighters, and just played a 2½ hour show, and signed autographs and done everything, I would go crash in the back of my bus. I would not do what Willie did which was he went back, took a shower, changed into a size XXX Snoop Dog black T-shirt and came out in black socks with his guitar and walked to the front of the bus and sat down with him and his sister Bobbie, who plays piano in his band. And he said ‘Somebody get a Casio.’ And they got a little Casio and put it across my lap and hers. And by then, we were going along a bumpy stretch of Interstate 10 near Houston and I’m trying to hold it still. And she and Willie proceeded to play for about 2 ½ hours, like from 2:00 to 4:30 in the morning.

Wow.

They were playing instrumental songs that they used to play, trying to see if they still knew them. Um, a lot of Django Reinhardt, he played Nuage, uh – it was just magical. And so, when I came to finish riding with Willie, sitting at my desk a year later, that scene of him – of him and Bobbie playing those songs – played a big part in that last verse.

The album closes out with I Love Everybody. This is a live cut and it was recorded at a music club and bowling alley.

Yeah. Music club/bowling alley. The Vernon, the great Vernon in Louisville, KY. Yeah, Tim had first told me about that place. He said ‘God, you gotta come here and play. It’s this great new club. It’s in the basement of a bowling alley.’ Of course, when I was playing it that night, that recording was – they hadn’t quite finished renovating the club so the ball returns for the bowling alley which was upstairs were going right over your head. And you could not only see the bowling balls you could hear them, so it was pretty rock and roll. You know, when it finished the record, the last song I had was – I thought it was a studio album, all new stuff recorded in the studio. And then I remembered Waylon Jennings had that album, Dream of My Dreams, which was a great studio album – which I think probably was his finest record – and he put that live cut, Bob Wills Is Still the King, that he had written on the bus and played in Austin that night. And I thought ‘You know, that’s kind of cool, having a live cut at the end of a record.’ And for some reason, you know, it’s kind of cosmic, too, with Tim – the fact that this was to honor him and that he had died – to end it with a live cut. It’s almost like the whole album is sort of cathartic and just goes through the whole process of coming to terms with his death and then ending it with something live. That just seems so appropriate. I don’t think I was even thinking about it as logically as I’m expressing it to you now. So that’s what I decided to do. But when we first finished it – we had played the Belgian Rhythm and Blues Festival. Tim came and it was like – I had a band called the Love Slaves. It had two lead guitar players. One of them couldn’t go so I took Tim Belgium and we played the Belgian Rhythm and Blues Festival. And there’s a great track that the Belgian radio has recorded but it wasn’t 24-track. They were kind of mixing it in their mobile unit as we went along. And so I had that on the album. And then I called Debbie because I wanted her to hear the album. And Tim was playing harmonic on that track. And she and her sister were driving from Florida back to Louisville and they were just 10 miles out of Nashville when I called her and I said ‘Hey, let’s meet for lunch.’ And we did she said ‘You know, there’s a live track of the last time you and Tim really did play together. You know, when the band came up and joined you, like write about in Tim Revisited. I said ‘You are kidding.’ And she said ‘No. they got a 24-track.’ So that night they overnighted and I called Utley and we went back in the studio. That was an expensive piece of information, I might add ‘cause I opened up the whole – I thought I was through with the album. We went back in and there was one little train-wreck place that we cleaned up and, uh, because it was 24-track, but that’s pretty much – I thought it was so cool to have the actual last time I played with Tim Krekel close out this album.

Amazing. Real quick last question.

OK.

I’m going to ask you the same thing I asked Tim before we ended our interview. This interview will be heard by people from all over the place …

OK.

and now read. What do you want to say to all the people?

Well, if you don’t know about Tim Krekel, he’s a great singer-songwriter, band leader, that worked out of Louisville, KY. A little bit more R&B than country but he could play it all. And if you don’t know his music, I recommend you start with the two last CDs. It’s almost like part of him knew he wasn’t going to be with us much longer because, you know, at an age when most people are phoning it in, Tim was upping the ante. I couldn’t believe the albums he was making, like Angel Share. I mean, come on. So go out right now. Go to Amazon and order World Keep Turning and Soul Season. It’s a very ‘stacks- kind of 60s-they buried Wilson Picket in my backyard’. You’ll be glad you did. That’s what I got to say.

Thank you so much Marshall Chapman.

Oh, thank you, Paul.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

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