They Came To Nashville
Like a scene out of an updated version of the film Honeysuckle Rose, at the pivotal point in They Came To Nashville, Marshall Chapman brushes away her tears and rides the tour bus to Willie Nelson’s concert at Beaumont. Standing backstage, she tells the sound guy to turn on the extra mike, does a quick check with Mickey Raphael (Willie’s long-time harmonica player) and strolls uninvited onstage to sing “Good Hearted Woman” with Willie, who seems happy enough when she joins him as he starts the first chorus.
I saw a recent interview with Sam Bush in the Aspen Times where he said, “You have to be invited first. You can’t just jump on stage.” Not so for our hero Marshall Chapman. In addition to the Willie scene, she joins Kris Kristofferson and Delbert McClinton on stage for Dust My Broom at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. The song is underway and she turns to the stage manager, points to a 12-string and says, “Okay if I play that?” “Be my guest,” he says, and onstage she goes. They’re glad to have her, apparently, because after Dust My Broom, Delbert hands her a Stratocaster and she plays and sings Betty’s Bein’ Bad as Kris and Delbert sing backup.
All this tells me that as beloved (and virtuosic) as Sam Bush may be there is a different standard for attractive, talented women in the “jumping on stage” department. There may even be a sub-category for Marshall Chapman that allows even more leeway. She’s like the Kevin Bacon of Nashville. You read her book and here she is with Cowboy Jack Clement (who I used to think was the Kevin Bacon of Nashville), there she is with Delbert, here she is with Rodney, there she is with Emmylou, etc., etc., etc.
Ms. Chapman’s Nashville roots go about as deep as anyone in the music business. As she points out, most folks in the business aren’t from Nashville, they came to Nashville (hence the book). As a general rule, the 15 subjects in her book came there after figuring out they wanted to be in the music business. Ms. Chapman came from South Carolina even before she wanted to be in the music business, attending Vanderbilt back in the 60’s. The first chapter of the book (Kris Kristofferson) opens at a party in a motel room in the old downtown Nashville Ramada Inn in 1968. She’s a 19-year-old Vandy student wearing a tweed skirt with knee socks and Bass Weejuns. Kent State will soon change lots of wardrobes, but at this point, she’s preppy and not really tuned in to what it means to be a songwriter. Kris Kristofferson is playing Bobbie McGee, and when he gets to the La de-dah de-dah part she’s thinking, “Man, those are pretty dumb lyrics. I guess he just couldn’t think of any words for that part.” Ms. Chapman has come a long way, as many of you know. She’s an accomplished songwriter/musician (11 or so albums) and quite the author, too.
Ms. Chapman has done a memoir already (Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller – nice NPR piece on that book here), but this book is more personal than one would guess would be necessary for a collection of interviews with country music types, even if those folks are friends. Each of the interviews open with background that explains the connection between Ms. Chapman and the subject, often including stories about her life in Nashville. By the end, you see that, in many ways, Ms. Chapman is exploring the reasons she loves Music City and the people in the music business by taking a look back at her own life (so far) through the eyes of her subjects.
The book does have great stories. Any fan of country music (and that’s little “c” country meaning to take in country in the broadest sense, including the outlaw or alt side of the ledger) really needs to read this book. Here are some examples:
- On what may have been Billy Joe Shaver’s first night in Nashville, at Jack Williams’s place (of Sweeney Todd fame) Marshall’s hair catches fire and almost scares Billy Joe to death.
- Kris Kristofferson telling about pitching songs in the make-up room of the Johnny Cash show.
- Johnny Cash (and Carl Perkins) giving up time at Newport Folk Festival so Kristofferson could sing Bobby McGee and Sunday Morning Coming Down.
- Mary Gauthier telling how she went to Harlan Howard Songs and knocked on the door, not realizing he had died a few months before. She played songs (including I Drink) for his widow, Melanie, “and I’m not quite sure how this happened, but a year later, I’m sleeping in Harlan Howard’s side of the bed.”
- Rodney Crowell as dishwasher and busboy at the same T.G.I. Friday’s where Marshall worked as greeter and bartender. Dishwasher was better, he says, because he could get stoned and drink half-finished drinks in the back.
- Rodney Crowell telling the story of wrecking Johnny Cash’s black Cadillac, then calling Johnny to tell him about it.
- Emmylou Harris telling about checking out the Bluebird Cafe many years ago and seeing a sign that said Steve Earle & The Dukes and thinking “that has to be a made-up name.”
- Don Henry’s telling about how his dad met David Allan Coe years ago and how Coe played Desperados Waiting For A Train for him. Henry’s dad said, “Shit! That’s the greatest fucking song I’ve ever heard!” and David Allan Coe simply says “Well, thank you” with no attribution to Guy Clark.
There are more great stories – the book is literally full of them. Reminded me of the newspaper John Prine talks about in his intro to Dear Abby – everywhere you look, something just jumps right out at you. Of all the interviews, the only one that falls a bit flat is Miranda Lambert. Even though Ms. Chapman had interviewed her previously for Garden & Gun, they do not have the common history she and her other subjects have and it is apparent.
So now I’m back around to the end of the book (and the beginning of this piece). Why was Ms. Chapman upset before she decided to walk on stage and sing with Willie? How did she resolve the issue? You’ll have to read the book to learn the answer to those questions. I will tell you that Slim Pickens was not involved. The Willie section is at the end, and it is the longest: 45 of the total 268 pages in the book. Quite a story, ranging from Ms. Chapman taking Willie home from a party at Rick Sanjek’s house in 1973 all the way to joining him in his tour bus at the end of a tour in 2008. If you don’t know Willie, you’ll have a much better idea of what he’s like (and what it’s like to be on tour with him) after reading this.
Marshall Chapman is a fine writer and this is quite a book. Give it a read and see for yourself.
They Came To Nashville is published by Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press.
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