When Marshall Chapman was a little girl growing up in Spartanburg, the word “Columbia” meant “halfway to the beach.”
The Chapmans – a leading family in the textile industry and prominent in Spartanburg social circles – vacationed at Pawleys Island, and the route to the beach in those days came right through downtown Columbia.
“I have this memory of my mother driving us to Pawleys when we were little,” Chapman said. “We were getting restless, acting out in the back seat, right about the time we were passing the state mental hospital on Bull Street. This was before air conditioning, and I remember seeing patients hanging onto bars looking down at us from open windows. Mother said if we didn’t straighten up, she was going to drop us off there. Needless to say, we quieted down.”
Young Marshall might have settled down in the car that day. But despite being raised as a debutante and educated in all things proper, she would take a restless spirit and a straight-up wild streak into adulthood.
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She attended college at Vanderbilt University and stayed in Nashville, where she emerged in the 1970s as an admired and commercially formidable songwriter – her tunes have been cut by ’70s and ’80s country hit makers such as Crystal Gayle, Sawyer Brown, and Ronnie Milsap – and a powerhouse live act. She played electric guitar (loud), a rarity among female performers of that era, and had an instinctive onstage charisma that has drawn comparisons to Mick Jagger.
Chapman was raucous onstage – and off. In her memoir, “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,” she recalls opening a show for Jerry Lee Lewis and meeting him later backstage: “(He) said —and I’ve never forgotten it — ‘Don’t you burn out now, hon’.’
“A year or so later, when I found myself in one of those hospitals for tired people, I began to think about what Jerry Lee had said. I mean it’s one thing when your mother says ‘Honey, don’t you think you’d better slow down?’ But when The Killer voices his concern... well now, that’s a whole nother thing. It might just be time for a little self-reevaluation.”
Indeed, Chapman’s songwriting in more recent years has revealed introspective, mature perspectives on life – family dynamics, romance, friendships. She says she was particularly moved by the death of her friend and writing partner Tim Krekel.
“About 2009, I decided I wasn’t going to do music anymore. Then Tim Krekel died. Tim was my best friend in music. After he was diagnosed with cancer, I don’t know. The songs just started pouring out. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with song ideas that just demanded to be written.”
Chapman believes the two ensuing albums, “Big Lonesome” and “Blaze of Glory,” “are, by far, my best work.”
Both have been given high marks by critics. In a review of “Blaze of Glory,” “American Songwriter” magazine praised Chapman’s “wistful reflections on life that never descend into sappiness.”
Her books – the memoir and a follow-up, “They Came to Nashville,” a collection of interviews with music friends and acquaintances – have received critical acclaim, too. It has given Chapman the opportunity to make public appearances in a very different setting from her old rock and roll days.
“The literary scene is totally different from the music scene,” she said. “Especially when it comes to promotion. With a book, you’re playing literary festivals, universities and non-profits, where they pick you up at the airport, cover all your travel and food expenses and so on. They take care of you. With music you’re on your own…Even payment is different. Just the words. There’s ‘honorarium’ and there’s ‘door money.’ Also, I have yet to experience a literary sound tech blowing smoke in my face.”
Chapman has been in Columbia a bunch of times over the years for both book events and concerts – with her band at USC and the old Greenstreets club in Five Points, solo opening a show for John Prine. In 1996, she was on the Farm Aid bill at Williams-Brice Stadium.
A particularly memorable visit to Columbia was in 2005, when the state legislature proclaimed “Marshall Chapman Day.” You can read it online. It was an official concurrent resolution, complete with a string of “whereas”-es and a concluding “Be it resolved.”
“It was surreal,” Chapman said.
If you go: Marshall Chapman plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 13, at Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St., West Columbia. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets $15; $13 in advance. conundrum.us
Baker Maultsby, Special to Go Columbia