December 2003

Marshall Chapman

Born to be wild
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When the family maid took seven-year-old Marshall Chapman to see Elvis Presley in concert, the wide-eyed daughter of a prosperous Spartanburg, South Carolina, textile family formed a permanent, private bond with the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. But unlike the thousands of swooning, screaming prepubescent debs-to-be in attendance at that 1956 matinee, the impish blonde with the iron resolve didn’t simply long to marry the King—she wanted to be him.

That was a popular daydream in those heady early days of rock if you were male, that is. Young ladies of Chapman’s breeding, however, were expected to matriculate in the finest finishing schools, there to master the homemaker’s arts and become wives, mothers and members of the Junior League.

Chapman recalls the moment she firmly pointed her red cowboy boots down the road less traveled.

"One of the most important decisions I ever made was telling everybody I was going to Vanderbilt University because it was in Nashville, and this is where I live now," she says by phone from Music City. "My parents didn’t want me to go there; they wanted me to go to a Virginia school like Hollins or Sweet Briar or Agnes Scott in Atlanta, and they took me to all of those schools." Parents James and Martha Chapman naturally feared their second of four children would fall in with the wrong element in Nashville artists, musicians, free thinkers and such.

Chapman, for one, was counting on it.

Three decades later, with eight albums, a few broken hearts and a stage career that flirted with fame behind her, Chapman recounts her wilder days in Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, a fond if fragmented look back at the more-or-less ongoing party that was the 1970s. Using a dozen of her songs as entry points, the rocker reveals the funky, drug-laced craziness behind the music. A succession of "speed freak boyfriends" contributed to the emotional wear-and-tear that eventually led her to check herself into an Arizona treatment center in 1988, at age 39. She retired from the road for good five years ago.

But it was one wild ride while it lasted.

When Chapman left Vandy and strapped on her electric guitar, she was an imposing figure: she topped six feet in her cowboy boots, unleashed an untamed mane of blond curls and belted out "grrrl rock" long before Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde.

Nashville songwriters such as Waylon Jennings, Bob McDill and Harlan Howard frequently sat in on her sets at the Jolly Ox, where Chapman defied convention by ignoring the Top 40 in favor of headier tunes by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. When Jennings and Nelson hit it big with college audiences, Chapman found herself swept up in the Outlaw movement.

"I was like the kid sister," she chuckles. "When I describe myself as Gidget goes to Nashville, it was really true. I was like, Oh wow, these guys actually think about their lives and write songs about it!’ I wasn’t writing songs when I first met them." Nashville at the dawn of the ’70s provided ample material for budding songwriters; the challenge was remembering it the next day. Chapman wrote her first significant song, "Rode Hard and Put Up Wet," one summer morning in 1973 after awakening facedown in her front-yard vegetable patch clad only in her underpants, following a boozy night watching John Prine at a well-known Nashville nightspot, the Exit/In.

If female rock and rollers were scarce in those days, female songwriters were unheard of.

"It was almost like a clubhouse with a big sign on the door that says No Girls Allowed," she recalls. "I ran with these guys I would swarm’ with them as Waylon used to put it and I was accepted and would sit around with them at the guitar pulls, but nobody would give me a publishing deal." Undeterred, Chapman started her own publishing company, Enoree Music, named after the river that flowed through her family’s textile plant.

Chapman’s solo albums met with critical praise but dismal sales. No one, it seems, could quite categorize this Amazonian blues-rock-guitar-slinging-Farrah-Fawcett-bad-girl-songwriter.

There was another way to make it in Nashville, of course. "There were women who had boyfriend producers. I was just adamant about never having a boyfriend be my producer, and now looking back upon it, I think I might have hit the big time if I had gone along with that. But I didn’t want to lose control of my music." Chapman finally crashed the boy’s club in 1984 when newcomers Sawyer Brown recorded one of her songs.

"When my first hit, Betty’s Bein’ Bad,’ was in the list for CMA Song of the Year, out of 120 songs, two were written by women Betty’s Being Bad’ and Rosanne Cash’s Hold On.’ When you see that ballot today, it’s about half and half. That is an amazing change." Chapman is a familiar figure to fans of chief Parrothead Jimmy Buffett; she has played in his Coral Reefer Band, toured as his opening act and even holed up on a sailboat in Key West writing "The Perfect Partner" for his Last Mango in Paris album. "I love Buffett. He’s one-third musician, one-third Huey Long and one-third P.T. Barnum," she says.

Chapman credits novelists Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, with whom she co-wrote the musical revue Good Ol’ Girls, for encouraging her to write her unorthodox memoir. "The word autobiography makes me cringe, just the presumptuousness of it: I was born a poor sharecropper’s child,’ whatever," she says.

Had she become a major star, it’s doubtful her memoir would have been half as revealing. Chapman figures the odds are good she wouldn’t even have lived to write it.

"Rosanne [Cash] has a T-shirt that says, Fame Kills.’ I think I’d probably be dead if everything that I wanted to happen at the time had happened back in the late ’70s because I didn’t know how to take care of myself out there. I was way too open. Fame would have eaten me alive."

Jay MacDonald, a writer in Oxford, Mississippi, has been on the bus with Willie Nelson but insists he didn’t exhale.



Get the Book

Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller

Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller

By Marshall Chapman
St. Martin's
ISBN 9780312315689

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