Marshall Chapman

Friday, November 14, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov.14, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.

Marshall Chapman: [Plays and sings] ” / Once there was a little girl, / unlike any in the world. / One night she looked and saw out her soul. / All she saw was rock and roll. / Her dad bought her an old guitar. / He never dreamed she’d be a star. / She worked her fingers to the bone / on that Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar./She played that guitar all day long / and put her feelings into song. / Sang her songs for Lula Mae, who said, / ‘Child, you got just what it takes.’ / And we all knew she’d leave somehow / to find the world she dreamed about. / She never turned around that day to see her sister wave to her and say, / ‘Goodbye, little rock and roller. / Gee, it sure was good to know you. / Goodbye, little rock and roller, goodbye.’ / All right. / Yeah, now, she hitchhiked to Hollywood, like / everybody knew she would. / She put a rockin’ band together. / They made plans. / They cut a record. / The rest was history, they say. / She took off down the fast highway. / People came from miles around. / Why, every night, she burned ‘em down. / Um — / All the fortune, all the fame, / all the lights around her name, / every night was now or never. / The road just seemed to grow — / go forever. / All her dreams that had come true, / they didn’t thrill her like they used to. / She never thought she’d grow to hear / a voice inside her strong and clear / saying, ‘Goodbye, my little rock and roller. / Gee, it sure was good to know you. / Goodbye, little rock and roller, goodbye.’ / All right. / She found a place down by the sea. / The place was called Serenity. / There she learned life goes on. / Life is more than just a song. / You’ll never guess what happened then. / She met a gentle man named Ben. / And together they made love so real, / they made a baby girl they named Lucille. / And she rocked Lucille to sleep each night / and sang her lullabies she’d write. / She thought her heart would break in two / the first time she heard, ‘Mom, I love you.’ / And then one day, her baby girl walked outside to find her world. / She never dreamed she’d see the day / she’d be fighting back the tears to say, / ‘Goodbye, little rock and roller. / Gee, it sure was good to know you. / Goodbye, little rock and roller, goodbye.’ / All right. / ‘Goodbye, little rock and roller. / Gee, it sure was good to know you. / Goodbye, my little rock and roller, goodbye.’”

Ken Pauslon: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a true original as a singer, as a songwriter and the author of a new book called Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, Marshall Chapman. Welcome.

Chapman: Hey, Ken. Glad to be here.

Paulson: Pretty good timing. We get that song from you, and then we turn to this fine new book called Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, which is — which has one of the more provocative covers I’ve ever seen on a book.

Chapman: I’ve been told.

Paulson: It provoked me. For those of you who don’t have a clear shot of this—and we do invite you to get a close-up view at your local bookstore—I gather this is a picture of you upside — actually on your stomach naked, flashing an obscene gesture at the camera.

Chapman: This is true. Actually, there — yeah. At the photographer … holding the camera. You had to be there. But it was Slick Lawson, a well-known, uh, Nashvillian, who — he was, um, he was over hanging out in this condemned neighborhood I was living in, in Nashville, and I used to go out there and have — I had plowed, because it was condemned. It was near Vanderbilt University. I had plowed my entire front yard and planted crops. And I used to go out there and nude sunbathe between the corn and the pole beans. And nobody could ever see me, so, I had — I was having what I thought was a private moment, and that moment was soon shattered.

Paulson: This is not a publisher who plays it safe, then.

Chapman: You know, I was thrilled. After years of making music in Nashville and having been on Nashville labels and even New York and Los Angeles labels, they always — you always felt like I was — I always, I always felt like I was being tethered and just having to stay inside some sort of box, ’cause, you know, they want to market the music. And they have their ways of doing that. But the cover of this book was first of all not my idea, which people who know me well find hard to believe. And when I saw the cover, I was truly shocked. I thought, “One, I’m going to have to break up with Chris. He can’t live with a woman naked on the cover of her bur–book, shooting an obscene gesture. Number two, I’m out of the will. So, forget it.” And none of those things have happened. But I called Lee Smith, and I hadn’t seen the cover, but I’d been told they were using that picture, and of course, that wasn’t there yet.

Paulson: Yeah, the title of the book has been plastered–

Chapman: Yeah, the title of the book

Paulson: — strategic location.

Chapman: Very strategically placed. And, now, I don’t think you see 50% of what you’d see in your typical swimsuit edition of “Sports Illustrated.”

Paulson: That’s true, but we should titillate people, and they should go buy the book and get a real close look at the cover.

Chapman: Absolutely.

Paulson: Well, you’re right—

Chapman: Every American home should have one.

Paulson: And, and it is a great book, and I don’t do a lot of endorsements of books here, but I was saying earlier that this is a book that I laugh out loud when I read, and there aren’t that many that do that. And it’s such a true — I gather it’s a true book.

Chapman: Oh, yeah.

Paulson: There’s no embel — there’s very little embellishment in this book.

Chapman: Right.

Paulson: This is the real story of Marshall Chapman.

Chapman: Well, where I come from, you, you can’t embellish anything. It already just seems embellished.

Paulson: Well, and what’s fascinating to me is, you’ve got such a wide group of friends, and, you know, of all places where I would expect to first encounter this cover, it was not at the home of the chancellor of Vanderbilt University.

Chapman: Well, there’s a story about when he saw the cover. His wife — he and his wife are good friends. The minute I saw that cover, I forwarded an attachment to Constance, and of course she printed it out and ran down and placed it on top of his bowl of cereal at breakfast. And he just said, “This is a joke. This is not her cover.” She said, “Yeah, yeah, isn’t it great?” And he just looked at it for the longest time, and of course, he’s a devout — as everyone knows, our chancellor’s a devout Mormon. And, um, it was a stretch for him, I’m sure, but—

Paulson: Well, he believes in free speech. Well, we shouldn’t get—

Chapman: He does.

Paulson: We shouldn’t get way off track—

Chapman: Yeah.

Paulson: —on the cover. The cover is just a great talking point. But the book itself — interesting structure to it. Basically you’ve taken a dozen of your songs and told the story about those songs, but it’s not a manual for writing songs. It’s about how your life is woven into, into your songs and vice versa, I guess.

Chapman: Right, I wouldn’t know how to write a manual for anything. But, um, yeah, each chapter title is a title of one of my songs, and in each — I’ve written hundreds, Ken, and I tried to pick the 12 that I thought had the best stories around them. And it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time. Especially when I used to sing, um, “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet.” I used to introduce that song and tell the true story of, you know, how I woke up facedown in my underpants in my condemned vegetable garden and one mor — had a horrible hangover. And I just crawled up on that concrete porch like those old houses have, you know, and put my cheek down on that cool concrete, and it just felt so good. And, and my next-door neighbor came over with a cup of coffee. We’d been out to hear John Prine the night before. It was his first album, first time I’d ever heard John Prine. He was singing “Angel From Montgomery” and “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There.” We just were all enthralled, and all — Kris Kristofferson was in the audience at the Exit/In that night. Waylon was in the audience. David Allan Coe was in the audience. Chris Gantry was in the audience. Guy Clark was in the audience. Johnny Rodriguez was in the audience. And they all got up and sang their songs. And–and I had not written a song yet. I had a band, but I was just enthralled. You know, I was at a stage in my life where I thought, “Oh, my God. These people are like–” you know, I thought Francis Scott Key had written all the songs. I mean, it’s just something I never thought about. It was so far from my reality growing up in South Carolina. Unlike Rosanne Cash, who grew up where every night under the–after supper, probably Dad would play his latest song, you know? So, I didn’t know where songs came from and graduated from Vanderbilt University not knowing where songs come from. Hopefully, that will be rectified. But they should have a class, Songwriting 101.

Paulson: I think you could be an adjunct.

Chapman: I’d love to be an adjunct. But anyway, I was just becoming aware, Ken, of all these great songwriters that were in Nashville at that time. Besides John Prine, Jack Clement, um, Harlon Howard, um, Cindy Walker—um, Billy Joe Shaver had just come to town about the same time. And I was just, like — I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Paulson: That’s something a lot of people miss about Nashville, even today, that—

Chapman: Yeah.

Paulson: –I think their mental picture is, you know, little Jimmy Dickson’s on one street corner, and Porter Wagner on the next and that it’s a country—traditional country music town. In fact, it’s always been a town full of rebels.

Chapman: Right.

Paulson: Groundbreaking songwriters and singers.

Chapman: Oh, Nashville is definitely a character magnet. I mean, you–you get characters here, I think. And that’s one of the things I love about this city is that there’s just so many unique characters.

Paulson: Are you—

Chapman: Iconoclasts.

Paulson: Well, and you’re probably among them there.

Chapman: I’ve been told.

Paulson: You, um, you paint a pretty picture of partying in Nashville, especially in the ’70s. And, uh, and,of course, suggested there might be a price we pay, depending upon where you want to wake up and what you want to be wearing at the time.

Chapman: Right.

Paulson: You–you do that. And then you went ahead and wrote a song about it that ended up on an early album, which is also a chapter title here.

Chapman: Oh, “That —”That Event”?

Paulson: “That Event” shows up in Rode Hard. Could we hear that?

Chapman: Yeah. I mean, I took, you know — I sort of crawled back in that apartment, and there was my old Martin D-28, and I picked it up and just started playing this, you know? [Plays] And these words just poured out, starting with this very line right here. It was like: [Plays and sings] ” / Well, I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / Lord knows last night was a night that I will never forget. / I can’t remember what happened, / but it must have been the best one yet. / ‘Cause I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / I was honky-tonking in Nashville all night long. / I heard John Prine, Kris, and Waylon. They were smokin’ a song. / There was Johnny Rodriguez. David Allan Coe, whoa, whoa. / It was a swarm herd of songbirds doing time on Music Row, / yes, it was. / ” Do you want to hear the — sing the whole thing? ” / Now, I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / Lord knows last night was a night that I will never forget. / I can’t remember what happened, / but it must have been the best one yet, yeah, / ’cause I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / ” Let’s see. Oh, do you really want me to sing the whole song?

Paulson: We’re in it now.

Chapman: ” / Later on that night, / I had to fight my way back home. / ” I blush now when I sing this. ” / Then safe and sound, / I heard the ringing of the telephone. / Any sense at all, I’d have left that damn thing alone, yeah, / you know what? / A fool loves company even more / as the night moves on. / Now I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / Lord knows last night was a night I will never forget. / I can’t remember what happened, / but it must have been the best one yet. / ‘Cause I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. / Well, then I went next door, I was wearing nothing but my underwear. / There was Matthew, Ellie, and Josh. / Yep, the gang was all there. / Bubba had a jug of moonshine from Greenville, South Caroline. / Well, I thought I was dead, / but they said I sang one last line. / Two, three, four. / And nothin’ could be finer / than to be in Carolina in the mornin’. / ”

Paulson: Wonderful. I have to believe you got some feedback from the record company on that song.

Chapman: What, on this one?

Paulson: Yeah, I mean, did, did — is that one they wanted you to record?

Chapman: They didn’t want — that was — I recorded my first album for Epic Records. They didn’t want it on there. They — I had written a lot of ballads, actually co-written, and were trying to sort of write as a craftsman. But that one was pure me.

Paulson: Yeah.

Chapman: And so it was a bit much for them. So, they wanted to — they sort of didn’t want it to be on the record, and I insisted that it be on there. And I’m glad it’s on there.

Paulson: Well, you make the point in the book, you know, that this was at a time when women didn’t sing, uh, frank lyrics. Except for Loretta Lynn, —

Chapman: right.

Paulson: —who you cite as a hero.

Chapman: Well, and there was another song on there — this is sort of interesting; it fits in with the program. But “Somewhere South of Macon” was the first single off that record, and there was a line in there that says, “I first made love in a cotton mill town somewhere south of Macon.” And that song appeared at number 100 on the top 100 in “Billboard” and disappeared the next week. And the word was that, um, that line, they deemed too sexually explicit to be on country radio. And at the same time, there was a woman on Epic Records from, um, Memphis, Tennessee, Charlie McClaine — had a single out called “Lay Something on the Bed Besides a Blanket.” Which just shot up the charts. Now, you know, I mean, I call it that sort of snickering behind the barn, cutesy-wutesy, sort of attitude towards sexuality. But the idea of a woman singing openly about her own sexuality, they weren’t ready for that. And it was just, you know — I did some research writing the book. And I asked, uh, Ronnie Pugh down at the Country Music Hall of Fame. He said it would be safe to say, uh, that there was a huge predominance of male country deejays at that time.

Paulson: Sure.

Chapman: There were very few female country deejays. And, you know, that’s just the way it was.

Paulson: It’s amazing Kitty Wells ever even got on there — on the air, —

Chapman: Well—

Paulson: —when you think about “Honky-Tonk Angels.”

Chapman: But I always loved Loretta. That’s why Kitty Wells — and Loretta Lynn was always sort of my favorite from that era. ‘Cause this was a woman who wrote her own songs. And she was singing really openly and honestly about the male-female thing. And, uh, as I said in the book, you need go no further than, “Don’t come home a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind.”

Paulson: Right.

Chapman: I just love that stuff.

Paulson: Again, a touching story. And we do want people to buy the book and experience this firsthand, but–but about an invitation to play at a prison.

Chapman: Right. Well, and that sort of — you know, the original idea, um, was to have each chapter — you know how movies sometimes roll credits, and then they tell you what happened to each one of the characters? Well, with the songs, I wanted to tell what happened to each song at the end of the chapter, if it got recorded or — so, with “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,” it ended up on an album that — a live album that I did at the Tennessee State Prison for Women, so I just started writing — I thought I was through with the chapter. And it turned out that part was as long as what I’d written. I just — you know, you just go where your energy is when you’re creating. If you try to control it, it’s just not right. So, I was writing about that experience. I had a band called the Love Slaves. And we did a free concert in the maximum security compound at the Tennessee State Prison for Women. It was just one of those life-changing experiences for me. And, um, I wrote about it. And I met some women in there, um, one of whom is a pen pal to this day and another woman, um, who was the editor of a newspaper they had called A Look Inside, they had within the prison. And she, um, she later committed suicide in her cell, and I went back to the prison and played for the memorial service. And I was wondering, “Oh, my God, what am I going to play?” And I got there; they had printed up a program that had me singing three songs and had written down what songs I was going to play. So, I didn’t have to decide. But, um, that — she always told me that was — her roommate later told me that “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller” was her favorite song. So, that’s how I ended the chapter. I’m looking up in heaven at Barbara, the woman that killed herself, and I just said, “Hey, Barbara. It’s my favorite, too.” And I’ve written hundreds of songs, and it’s, it’s probably my favorite.

Paulson: One of — one of the crowd favorites involves a small child in a supermarket.

Chapman: Oh, yeah, —

Paulson: And I wonder—

Chapman: —that’s the last chapter.

Paulson: I wonder if we could ask you to read a little bit from the book?

Chapman: I’d be happy to, yeah.

Paulson: Let’s see if we can find the magic page here. This is from a chapter called “Call the Lamas.”

Chapman: Yeah. “Call the Lamas,” l-a-m-a-s. As opposed to l-l-a-m-a-s. It’s not the animal we’re referring to. [Reads] “Later that day, I went by Sunshine Grocery to pick up some produce for supper. While standing in the crowded checkout line, I suddenly noticed myself becoming impatient. ‘Marshall, you don’t have to stop living just because you’re waiting in this long line. Take a deep breath, girl, and relax. Come on, now. You can do it.’ So, I did. I closed my eyes and took in a long, deep breath. When I opened them, the first thing I noticed was this baby. He looked to be about eight months old and was sitting in the back of a grocery cart directly in front of mine. And he was looking right at me, like only babies can do, and I swear he was laughing at me, like he was in on the joke about my impatience. In the line next to us, an exasperated mother was trying to check out while her three daughters, who looked to be about two, four, and six, were all running around out of control. Then an amazing thing happened. The three little girls suddenly stopped running around and just froze. They were all looking at the baby in front of me, who by now had affixed his hypnotic gaze on them. The six-year-old girl then walked over to the baby, stood on her tiptoes, and I swear the baby leaned down, and they kissed each other right on the lips. I couldn’t believe it. Her two sisters then followed suit. Each one stepped forward to take her turn kissing the baby, with the baby leaning down to receive each kiss, all the while cooing and making those cute little sounds that only babies make. A few days later, I recounted this experience in detail to my therapist. His response was: ‘Call the lamas.’ And it sounded like a good title to me. So, that night after supper, I started writing the song. At about three in the morning, I was so close to finishing it, I could taste it. I only needed one more word in the last line, but I was struggling, trying to find just the right word. I don’t know if I was getting lonely or lazy or what, but suddenly I decided I needed to wake up Chris. So, I slunk down the hallway to the master bedroom. ‘Chris,’ I said sheepishly. ‘What?’ he yelled out. ‘Damn it, Marshall, this better be good.’ After five years living with Chris, I had learned to differentiate between Chris really being mad and him being kind of annoyed but acting like he was mad. ‘Well, you know that song I’ve been working on about the little baby in the grocery cart?’ There was silence. Had he gone back to sleep? I kept on talking like he could hear me. ‘Well, he’s kissing these little girls in the checkout line at the grocery store, see? And I need an adjective to describe the kiss. It’s a sweet, playful kiss, not a passionate or lascivious kiss, something like a cosmic kiss. But I need four syllables. It’s the very last line of the song, and…’ ‘Transcendental.’ ‘What?’ ‘Transcendental,’ Chris repeated as he rolled over and fell back asleep. I couldn’t believe it. I went back down the hall grabbed my guitar, and sang the song all the way through with the new word. It was perfect.” So.

Paulson: In this town, they ask, “Did you share publishing?”

Chapman: Oh, with Chris?

Paulson: Yeah. 1/50th of the song.

Chapman: We have co-written some songs since then, actually. I thought, “This guy.” I think — he’s spent most of his life in the left side of his brain. He’s a doctor by training. But he’s — since we’ve been together, I’ve just seen this movement to the right side, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up writing something.

Paulson: Could we hear the song?v

Chapman: Yes. [Plays] Take it up one step here. I appreciate you keeping me on track here. [Plays and sings] “”Call the lamas! / I saw a little Buddha in the checkout line at the grocery store today. / Call the lamas! / He was sitting like a prince in his grocery cart / with a perfect smile on his face. / His mom and dad preoccupied with paying for their food, / they could not see him smile at me with calm beatitude. / Call the lamas! / I saw a little Buddha in the checkout line at the grocery store today. / Call the lamas! / He was sitting like a prince in his grocery cart with a perfect smile on his face. / ” All right, Ken, I want you to help me right now. ” / O-m. / ” [Both sing] ” / Ommmm. / Ommmm. / ” Great. “Then suddenly in front of me, I saw three little girls, / their mother bagging groceries while around her feet, they swirled. / Their peals of laughter silenced when they all looked up to see / little Buddha smiling at them beatifically. / He leaned down towards them, / holding all them in a state of bliss. / Then one by one, they each received his transcendental kiss. / ” Thank you, Chris. ” / Call, call, call, call the lamas! / I saw a little Buddha in the checkout line at the grocery store today. / Call the lamas. / Ommmm. / He was sitting like a prince in his grocery cart / with a perfect smile on his face. / Call the lamas! / Ommmm. / Call the lamas! / Ommmm. / Call the lamas! / Ommmm. / I saw a little Buddha in the checkout line at the grocery store. / “

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