By Jim Simpson
“‘Rode Hard and Put Up Wet’ was the first song I wrote by myself that felt like I wasn’t trying,” Marshall Chapman wrote in her 2003 memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. “It just poured out one hungover afternoon in late summer of 1973. I’d woken up around noon facedown in my front yard — which was a vegetable garden — wearing nothing but my underpants.”
Chapman’s since written songs for the likes of Emmylous Harris, John Hiatt, Joe Cocker, Conway Twitty and Irma Thomas. She’s toured extensively on her own and opened for everybody from John Prine and Jimmy Buffet to Jerry Lee Lewis and The Ramones. Now, this Renaissance woman plays Gwyneth Paltrow’s character’s road manager in the upcoming film, Country Strong, has another memoir, They Came to Nashville, and a new CD, Big Lonesome, both due out October 26. The CD is dedicated to her friend, the late Tim Krekel. Far from morose, the interconnected songs combine to form a bittersweet celebration of deep friendship and admiration.
Your upcoming CD, Big Lonesome, was recorded after your friend and collaborator Tim Krekel died, and a few of the songs were destined for a duet album that, sadly, never happened. How did you and Tim meet?
Well, I knew who Tim was from his Capricorn [Records] album and his early days playing with Jimmy Buffett. I imagine we met during that time. Then in the early ’80s, Tim formed The Sluggers, a rock trio comprised of Tim and my former “Jaded Virgin” rhythm section. They ended up recording an album for Arista. But Krekel and I became really good friends when we were Coral Reefers (members of Jimmy Buffett’s band) together in the summer of 1987. On off days, we’d go to museums and movies together. Then in 1995, Tim was in my band (The Love Slaves). We opened all Buffett’s shows that year, and that’s when Tim and I started writing songs together.
“Sick of Myself” was the last song you and Tim wrote together, but you two never got the chance to record it. Did you always have a melody in mind when you wrote it?
No, I didn’t. This song started as an email from me to Tim. At the time, I really was sick of myself, and was wondering who could I be “for a day, maybe two.” The answer was simple — Tim Krekel. So I emailed Tim the lines as sort of love poem from me to him, thinking all the while it might be a song. Within an hour, Tim emailed me the last two verses, which blew me away. These email exchanges were in early 2008. After that, I turned my attention full-time to writing They Came to Nashville [Chapman’s upcoming book]. It wasn’t until fall of 2009 — just before we started tracking Big Lonesome — that I worked out the melody and arrangement. By then I had written a bridge that was sort of cosmic. As it turned out, the song didn’t need it.
What do you think Tim would say about the finished song?
I think he’d say, “Holy shit! That’s great!! You guys really nailed it!”
Also on “Sick of Myself” (a sort of “grass is always greener” song) the verses Tim wrote include: “I’d like to know what it’s like to be regal and tall/To charm a whole room with that Carolina drawl/To rock with a purpose like ol’ Jerry Lee/While wearing your soul on your rock and roll sleeve.” Does this pretty much describe you, with emotions close to the surface?
My sister Dorothy recently said those lines described me better than anything she ever heard.
When I first read those lines (Tim’s lines), I burst into tears. Because the words were so right on. And we just don’t see ourselves through the same lens our friends do. I can be pretty hard on myself. A really good friend will give you a break. A really good friend will hold you in their hand like a nugget of gold just pulled from the ground, and let the dirt fall through their fingers, while holding onto the gold. Tim did that.
Tim’s son Jason sang the parts of that song that Tim would have sung. That must have been a bittersweet and powerful session. How’d it go?
The session went great. The problem was getting him here. Jason lives in Asheville with his wife Ami Worthan. They tour under the name Mad Tea Party. We finally arranged for them to stop by the studio in early February while en route to gigs in Colorado. It was bitter cold. As I recall, the snow was so bad when they got to Colorado, their gigs got canceled and they had to turn around and drive right back. They’re young, though. [Laughs.] They can handle it.
The last track on Big Lonesome, “I Love Everybody,” is a live recording of your and Tim’s last performance together. You initially weren’t aware of the multi-track’s existence. Same for the title track, recorded in 1999, which turned up in someone’s garage. Safe to say it seems like some benign guiding force was helping with this project?
It’s scary when I think about it. Serendipitous, really. But this whole project felt that way. (BTW, we had some of Tim’s ashes with us in the studio when we tracked. So he was with us in a lot of ways.)
Talk a bit about the night “I Love Everybody” was recorded at The Vernon in Louisville.
When it was happening, everybody was playing so good, because, on some level, we knew Tim wouldn’t be with us much longer. The Rolling Stones’ “This Could Be the Last Time” kept floating through my mind. There’s a video of this actual performance on YouTube somewhere. Seeing that might answer this question better than words.
You wrote the song “Tim Revisited” shortly before he died. Is there a significance to the mariachi horns on the song?
After I wrote this song (or it wrote me) I sang it to Debbie [Tim’s wife] over the phone. ‘I want Tim to hear this,’ she said and put him on the line. He sounded weak and a bit agitated. I didn’t know what to do. So I sang the song, fully expecting to hear a dial tone at the end. Instead, he came alive: ‘Now listen, Marshall!’ he said, all animated. ‘When you go to record this, you be sure and put mariachi horns on it, you hear?’ Those were his last words to me. Three days later he was gone.
Big Lonesome must have been a difficult album to put together, lots of fresh emotional content, equally sad yet cleansing. What were the toughest parts to deal with? The most joyous? (“I Love Everybody” really kicks it into high gear, the kind of song most people would love to hear at their own wake, if that were possible.)
I was so committed and focused making this album – more than on any other. We all felt like we were ‘onto something.’ And it was emotional, for sure. But it’s hard to say what the “toughest part” was and the most joyous. I guess, like anything, the toughest part was starting, and the most joyous — finishing.
You wrote your first song in 1973, and you’ve written hundreds of songs for other artists (some heavy hitters: John Hiatt, Emmylou, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Conway Twitty among many), and Big Lonesome is your 12th album. How do you stay so prolific? How do you keep the craft of songwriting fresh?
I don’t think of myself as being that prolific. I need a lot of down time between projects, where I don’t do anything but sit and stare out a window. A lot of writers treat songwriting like a nine to five job. They write all the time. I’m more of a wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-screaming kind of songwriter.
You’ve said that the genesis of the song “Riding with Willie” (on Big Lonesome) is explained in your new book, They Came to Nashville. Can you give us a taste of this story?
Well, I was on his bus for three days, so if some of my answers seem incoherent, now you know why!
In They Came to Nashville there’s a chapter that deals with your earliest memories of Emmylou Harris in Nashville around ’72. You talk about her waitressing at a Polynesian restaurant, and about your job at T.G.I.Friday’s with Rodney Crowell. This sounds like some bizarre dream. The chapter also includes a wild ride in a car called “Whitetrash,” and a collision with a police car resulting in an occupant losing part of a finger. Are you surprised you survived this stuff?
Yeah. When I think about some of the shit I’ve pulled, I’m amazed I’m still alive.
Is that your foot on book’s cover with a tattoo of the Nashville skyline?
It’s Georgia Rae Hiatt’s.
You recently acted in your first movie, alongside Gwyneth Paltrow as her character’s road manager in Country Strong due out this fall. How in the world did you land this part, and how was Gwyneth as a country singer? From whom did you draw inspiration to play your character?
I got a message from someone on Facebook, asking me to read for the part. Having never so much as been in a school play, I thought it’d be a good experience, you know, something I could write about for a magazine or something. I couldn’t believe it when I got the part. I later heard 36 actresses had read for this character whom the script described “a woman in her late-50s, no-nonsense, good-hearted, and foul mouthed.” A friend joked I’d have to clean up my act for the part.
I drew my inspiration from the actors around me. Tim McGraw, Gwyneth, Garrett Hedlund … it doesn’t get any better than that. Like playing tennis with someone far better than you — it elevates your game.
In addition to performing, songwriting, acting, writing radio commentary and memoirs, you’ve written a country musical (Good Ol’ Girls based on the writings of the amazing writers Lee Smith and the Jill McCorkle — I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both) and you’re also a contributing writer for a number of publications. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
I love photography. And I love painting. And I’ve dabbled a little bit in both.
Your first book, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, was considered more of a snapshot of your life, not an autobiography, and your editor called it “a road map of some of the places she’s been.” Fair to say this holds true for the new book and many of your songs?
Any plans to write a novel? Or does the old maxim hold strong: Truth is stranger than fiction.
Not at the present. I dabbled with fiction after the first book, and a couple of short stories got published. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Then there’s “Save the truth for fiction.”
Marshal Chapman plays Eddie’s Attic with Rodney Crowell, September 5, as part of the Decatur Book Fest.