CALL THE LLAMAS...EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE TALL GIRL, BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
by Michael Buffalo Smith
During the seven years that GRITZ Magazine has been in cyberspace, we have interviewed Nashville singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman twice. This is our third time out. Now, before you start thinking we are playing favorites, know that Chapman is always doing something new, fresh and exciting. In addition to great albums and having her songs recorded by an amazing array of artists (Jimmy Buffett recently covered "Call The Lamas") she also authored an excellent memoir (Goodbye Little Rock and Roller) and is featured a regular spot as commentator on XM Satellite Radio's Bob Edwards Show.
Now, Marshall is back with one of the finest albums of her career, Mellowicious.
I met Marshall for a late lunch at Vandyland in the West End area of Nashville. She introduced me to everyone and told me the 1960's style soda shop was one of her favorite hangouts. On the way in, Marshall was stopped by several different people, including a man she introduced as a "true football hero" from 1960's Vanderbilt University, Christie Hauck, class of '70 defensive back who intercepted the pass that set up the winning touchdown when Vanderbilt defeated the Bear Bryant-coached Crimson Tide in 1969.
She told me all about the history of Vandyland, and the sad fact that they are closing in May. I met the cook, Mack McGee, a local hero whose smiling face adorns t-shirts that can be purchased at the restaurant. Vandyland has been in operation since 1928, and Mack has missed only one day of work since he started there in 1963. I also met owner Bea Givens, a very nice lady herself.
Marshall ordered a tasty shake and veggie soup and I had a mighty fine triple turkey and bacon on wheat and some ice water, and we started chatting.
You have a new album out called Mellowicious. Where did that original title come from?
Well, after we started working on this record, I started thinking about what to call it. I thought about Wise Fool, now that would have been appropriate...(Laughs) but my husband used to call me Mello, spelled with an "o" like Jello. That was just a nickname, like all couples do. I called him Crisco. Like what Loretta Lynn fries her chicken in. Then one day I was doing something over the top and he called me “Mellowicious.” That was sort of a term of endearment that he had for me. When I was working on the record he said why don’t you just call it Melloicious? It fit, so there you are. Todd Snider told me that I even wrote the title too, because it’s a made up word.
What does Crisco do? (Laughs)
Crisco and I are married. He is the Civil Service Medical Director for Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County.
That is a great title.
Yeah, it’s really great because I have insurance. They have a new policy at Metro requiring physicals for all their employees, the firemen and policemen, everybody. It's a good thing. But Chris is also a writer. He just doesn’t know it yet. He has never really lived in that right side of his brain like I have. Take “Call The Lamas” for instance. I needed an adjective to describe this kiss.It was not a romantic kiss but kind of a cosmic kiss. I needed four syllables. He was asleep and I woke him up and he suggested the word "transcendental," which was perfect. Chris is very smart.
Yeah, that is one of my favorite songs on the record, I loved that ‘transcendental kiss’ line. I love that song.
Well, thank you, (Laughs).My publicist is a lady named Tamara Saviano, who is also Kristofferson’s publicist -not to sound like I am bragging- but every now and then something good happens that makes you want to sign on for the next five years. She was in Atlanta Tuesday night and they were riding to a show in a car and Kris told her that he loved my new CD, that“Call The Lamas” was his favorite and that he could not get it out of his head.
Yeah, me too.
Well, that song is kind of a miracle. I wrote a whole chapter about it in my book. I wrote it about a week before Jamie died, my brother. That song was a gift from God. All these songs were coming through me. I got so burnt out when they pulled the plug on the last label I was on, I was not going to do another record or have anything to do with the music business anymore. I went into a closet and just started writing. When I had about 30 pages, I sent them to Lee Smith, and she told me to just keep writing. After 30 pages I knew it wasn’t a song. (Laughs)
Lee was my mentor through the whole thing. Then I was thinking I would just write another book and not do music again. I had these songs – some written when my brother was dying which was right when that last studio album came out. That was almost 10 years ago. Some of the songs were written more recently, but back then, I was writing song after song. Then out of nowhere comes “Call The Lamas!”... I didn’t even know what that was about. I thought why the hell was I writing about a baby in a grocery cart in a grocery store and who gives a damn? It hit me weeks later while I was driving down Belmont Boulevard. It hit me that the baby in the grocery cart was my brother- that baby was my brother, and those three little girls were me and my two sisters kissing him goodbye.
That is the thing about writing and creativity that really makes me believe in the whole universal mind. I am a dumb ass, and those songs that I write are so much smarter than I am. My job is to get my dumb ass out of the way so they can happen. That is the hardest job for me is to get this busyness and silliness out of the way. I have about 12 songs going on now. I want to do another record because I am writing some of the wildest shit of my life right now. But you just to get the time where everything is not coming at you - it’s all about clearing a space.
What is your favorite place to be in to write?
The car is a really good place. Do you know Sam Shepard, the playwright?
He's one of my heroes...
Mine too. I love him. He used to drive through the desert with a yellow legal pad propped up on the steering wheel and would write while driving. He had to get out of the house to write. I do that too, sometimes I nearly have a wreck.
Did you ever hear “Brownsville Girl” that he co-wrote with Bob Dylan? It’s like 18 minutes long. It’s like one of his plays.
Do you think any amphetamines were involved in that session?
Well, quite possibly. (Laughs)
That’s what Billy Joe (Shaver) was saying one time in this interview. They were talking about this speed that everybody was taking back in the early days. Shaver said, “Come to think of it we did write a lot of up-tempo songs back then.” (Laughs) But we were talking about Sam Shepard...
Yeah, Sam Shepard. I got my degree in Theatrical Arts and did a lot of his plays in Spartanburg, Atlanta, Tryon and all around. I did True West.
That’s cool. I saw True West in New York a few years ago. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Riley played the two brothers, one the successful playwright, and the other the alcoholic brother. They were switching roles every other night, can you imagine? Their mother was played by Celia Weston (ne Watson) from Drayton, S.C. which is really Spartanburg. Celia and I went to school together and played basketball together. She was also in the movie Junebug with that girl that was nominated for best actor, and I think that was one of the best roles she has done. I want to salute my friend Celia Weston, she played the mother. Anyway, Celia got Chris and me tickets for True West when it played in New York. This was just after Boogie Nights – nobody knew who John C. Riley or Philip Seymour Hoffman were. Chris and I got to meet them backstage. I remember Riley saying he would listen to Hank Williams III to get all pumped up to play the alcoholic brother.
Do you only do songs that you write or do you ever do other people’s songs?
I have recorded other people’s songs but probably 96% are my own. On my Rounder album (Take It On Home, 1982) I recorded a Check-Berry-esque version of Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up The Tempo.” And on Jaded Virgin (Epic, 1978) I covered “I Walk The Line” by Johnny Cash and “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger. And also that Waylon and Billy Joe Shaver song “Just Because You Asked Me To.” Right now I do my own songs. I’ve thought about doing a record of songs I love written by other people. You know, like that one Nancy Griffith did – “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” I love that title.
One album that I really like is Tony Joe White’s “The Heroines.” It was all the girl singers that he admired, duets with everybody.
That is so cool.
I used to compare you to Patti Smith in some ways.
Well, thank you. I admire her a lot. She dated Sam Shepard, as I recall. I was into her during a time when I was hopelessly in love with this guy. I was going through my Lou Reed/Marianne Faithful “get out the razor blades” phase. I wrote an album’s worth of songs during that time that I never got around to recording. Those were my “missing years.” I was in total agony over this guy - I was just a mess. It was a very dark period. I wrote “Have A Little Faith” back then. But unlike the others, that song had hope – anybody could relate to it – so I dusted it off and recorded it for the new record.
I read that your zodiac sign is Capricorn. Did you have any ties to Capricorn Records in Macon?
When The Tuckers (Marshall Tucker Band) came out with their first record, I noticed that they were on Capricorn Records. I thought well damn, I should be on Capricorn Records, since I’m a Capricorn, like it was my destiny or something. My birthday is January 7th. Phil Walden’s birthday is January 11th and that’s why he called it Capricorn Records.
They did a songfest in Muscle Shoals two years ago. Rodney Hall put it on, Rick Hall’s son. They had seminars around Florence and Phil did one with this writer from Rolling Stone. It was awesome.
Phil’s a good friend. Sometimes I laugh and tell him it’s because we never did business together (Laughs). He was over at our house for dinner about a year ago. Just him by himself. He had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He had driven up from Atlanta to visit old friends. Chris and I cooked for him. Then he sat there and told story after story. The man can talk (Laughs). The one that just killed me was the one he told about the phone call he got after Otis Redding’s plane went down..
When you attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, what did you major in.
French and Fine Arts.
Tell me a little about life at Vandy and how it fit in with your songwriting and sports...
Well, I was naive and innocent. I had my Martin D-28 with me. In those days, women students had to be back in the dorms by midnight. You had to sign out, and back in, on these cards near the dean of women's office. I remember playing songs for the girls on my hall in the stairwell after hours -- Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Hank Williams, Big Joe Turner. The acoustics in that stairwell were great. Lots of reverb.
There was a student in my class named Woody Chrisman. We became friends and played music together. Woody ended up playing fiddle with Riders in the Sky and is now a member of the Grand Ol' Opry. Sometimes we'd play off-campus parties. One time we played one and Bob Dylan was there. He was in town to record Nashville Skyline. I remember Allen Ginsburg was there.
Otis Redding's next to last concert was at Memorial Gymnasium. I remember Jim Cunningham, the place kicker on the football team called to tell me he had died in a plane crash.
I didn't write my first song until a few years after I had graduated, but while a student, I became aware of Kris Kristofferson, who was starting to have some success. I met Cowboy Jack Clement my sophomore year. That pretty much changed everything.
Sports? I played intramural basketball. This was pre-Title 9. My father always felt I would have gotten a full ride, had I been post-Title 9. I could score from anywhere. But I didn't know squat about defense. When I was growing up, girls couldn't cross the center line. Since I played "offensive center," I wasn't expected to play defense.
Are you doing another book?
Well, I am writing these commentaries for XM Satellite Radio, The Bob Edward’s show. I read them live on the hookup to Washington. Their offices are located in a building where they used to manufacture National Geographic magazines. It’s unbelievable. You walk in the lobby and look up, and there is an exact replica of the satellite.
These are just little commentaries and each commentary leads into a song. Like little mini-chapters from my book.
I took a stab at fiction – short stories. One of them got published last year in a nice anthology. Fiction may be more freedom than I can handle. With non-fiction you are at least bound by the parameters of what you perceive to be the truth. With fiction I almost get too wild. I loved Steve Earle’s collection of short stories – Dog House Roses. It was published, while I was working on my book. You can imagine what that title means. When you mess up and go into the dog house...
Oh I have never done that...(Laughs) What about touring for this album?
I just recently signed with a booking agency. I haven’t been with an agency since 1980. They are in Austin- K&B Talent, International. They’ve got me opening for Maria Muldaur in Philadelphia. It’s like being back at square one. I’m looking to open for some people. Anyone out there interested, please call!
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I love that question. My favorite is Truman Capote. I love the way he writes. It’s real bare bones. He uses mostly nouns and verbs, not flowery. Just bare bones. I love writers that make me want to scream out loud when I am reading them. Capote does that. My favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird. Other favorite writers are Charles Bukowski because he is so brutally honest. I’m crazy about him. Suzanne Kingsbury. Lee Smith. Jill McCorkle.The late great Larry Brown. Silas House, a wonderful writer from Kentucky. William Gay. Jim Harrison and Hemingway, even though neither of those guys knew how to write about women. As far as no longer living writers Willa Cather was one I read as a girl. I think she was a big influence. You know, if I have a good book going, I never feel alone. Right now I’m reading Mad Girls in Love by Michael Lee West, and My Dark Places by James Ellroy.
Do you read horror?
I read Carrie, when it first came out. I have not read King since then. When I was editing my book I was freaking out and Lee Smith told me to get Stephen King’s On Writing. A wonderful book.
As for non-fiction, I really like like Ann Lamott, Willie Morris, and James Frey, whatever he is. Fiction or non-fiction, I don’t care. The guy can write. I just got around to reading Lee’s Fair and Tender Lady. I was embarrassed that I had never read it. It kept me up all night. What a great book. I’m partial to Southern writers. Oh yeah, and let’s don’t forget Pat Conroy and Ellen Gilchrist. Sometimes I feel like those two read my mail when they write.
Have you ever read anything by Joyce Carol Oates?
No, I have not. There is a writer here in town named Ann Patchett. She wrote a book called Bel Canto that is so good. It takes place in a South American country and involves an opera singer who’s been called to do a command performance at the vice-president’s house, and some terrorists show up and hold people hostage. It’s an amazing book, the way the characters are transformed through that experience. But how creative – to be from Nashville and come up with something like that.
Are you a Bush supporter?
Well I would like to support everybody to be the best that they can be. That includes President Bush. I am appalled by this administration’s foreign policy. I’ve pretty much had it with both Democratic and Republicans alike, because it has all come down to the way campaign contributions are handled. It’s bribery. I am tired of big business controlling government and taking it away from the people. I think people need to start caring about what is going on and rise up and have their own candidates, instead of corporations deciding for us who is going to be president before the first vote is cast. It’s all been bought and packaged.
I’ve had it with both parties. I voted for John Kerry and the reason that I voted for him was because I was against the United States invading Iraq. We’ve had some ugly periods in our own American history, but most people don’t want to look at history. Especially if they have an agenda. Imagine if Iraq had declared war on America in the 1850s because they thought slavery was “evil”, and had come over here to straighten us out. We would not have liked that one damn bit. Sometimes countries, as well as people need to be allowed the dignity of their own pain, as they evolve and grow. We have no business over there. Other than oil, of course. Calvin Coolidge said it best: “The Business of America is business.” I’d like to think there’s more to America than that..
Every day, I pray for President Bush, that all of his needs are being met according to God’s will, not mine.
I voted for Bush in the beginning but as time went on I began to wonder what in the world we are doing...
Ideally, after 9/11 when Bush got up to speak in front of the joint sessions of Congress, I was pulling for the guy. The whole world was pulling for him. His speech was good, especially the part where he warned Americans of retaliating against their Arab-American brother and sisters. At least America had evolved pass Japanese internment like we had after Pearl Harbor. But in a way, maybe we haven’t evolved. Especially when I hear about all the arrests and detainment of suspected terrorists most of whom are innocent. And the torture has got to stop. I am against all of that. I weep when I think about the seeds of hatred being sown in this “War on Terrorism” that will not be healed in my lifetime. It breaks my heart.
One thing that popped into my mind was when Cat Stevens came into the United States to record recently to record and was detained and treated like a criminal. He will probably not come back here again.
I remember hearing about that. I must say that Osama achieved everything he set out to do. This country is in a state of fear. You don’t know who to believe anymore. You are not going to get the truth from Fox News because that is just a mouthpiece for corporate America. People speak of the liberal press - there is no such thing. It’s all a mouthpiece to the highest bidder.
When CNN started there were lots of young reporters that wanted to tell the way it really was, but it wasn’t long before they were bought out too. It was when Operation Desert Storm was happening, and it all got bought out.
Now they have this thing where they say “we report and you decide,” and it’s all staged. Even when they have debates – a liberal guy and a conservative guy, the conservative guy looks sane and has a suit on and the liberal guy is some spineless-looking, whiney-voiced nerd being paid to be the “token” liberal guy. So Joe Blow is watching in Des Moines and who’s he going to believe? Not the nerdy guy who in reality is probably a Republican since he’s on the payroll.
My favorite quote – I may have quoted this in our last interview, but it bears repeating. It’s by Solzhenitsyn...
“If only it were all so simple, if only we could take all the evil people in the world and somehow separate them from the rest of us. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
That’s all I have to say. The government is trying to make everything black and white and it is not. Then if you want to talk about the grey areas, they tell you you are weak. Okay, so we invade Iraq, Saddam’s regime gets toppled, THEN WHAT? Nobody wanted to talk about that at the time. And if anyone brought it up, Hey let’s think this thing through, they were considered weak, or worse – unpatriotic. No time for hesitation. Let’s go kick some ass, boys!
Another question I had was about this whole Katrina disaster and if you had any thoughts on the disaster. New Orleans is trying to rebuild everything, and the news wants to make it seem fine but I have friends that have sent pictures and it is still completely wiped out...
They have been interviewing people from New Orleans over the past couple of weeks. I was as stunned as anybody by the massive extent of the destruction and equally stunned that it took such a long time for the government to respond. Lots of red tape got in the way with that situation. The response was slow. Funny how, if this country wants to invade another country, it happens in a heartbeat.
Have you performed down there?
Yeah, lots of times, especially when I was on (Jimmy) Buffett’s label. He has a lot of ties to New Orleans. I used to go down there once a year, whether I was playing or not, check into the Marie Antoinette Hotel and just enjoy it. It’s a fantastic city and I don’t know if it will ever be the same. I don’t have any answers for that, and I guess it will be whatever it will be. I love those people down there. There are a lot of poor down there. I also love New Mexico which is a poor state as well. Seems like wherever there is oppression, there is a lot of beauty as far as music or cultural pride in the food, or something. The love is manifested in the food and the art.
Also, when I was growing up, the only music worth a damn was black. I loved Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals, all that stuff. I never got into the acid rock thing. I was into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Shirelles, The Tams… music that came out of oppression. Love manifested in music.
That’s why there’s so many great women’s voices out there. People tell me all the time that I was ahead of my time, whatever that means. I had an electric guitar and wrote my own songs and didn’t have a producer to tell me how it would sound. We would go into a rehearsal hall and lay it all down. I wrote the songs and laid down the riff. People say now that I was one the first woman to front a rock and roll band playing electric guitar. Now, everywhere you look, there’s a woman playing electric guitar. All I can say is it’s about damn time!
I love Susan Tedeschi.
Yeah, she’s great. Chrissie Hynde, Tracy Chapman, Eliza Gilkyson… there are so many good ones.
What’s next for Marshall Chapman?
Got this new record coming out and I am hitting the road with it - and I am still writing commentaries for The Bob Edwards Show (XM Satellite Radio) – the next one airs on tax day (April 15). I recorded “Jesus Was a Capricorn” for a Kris Kristofferson Tribute CD that will be out in June… so I’m staying busy. Where I come from, Money is life’s report card. If that’s true, my sisters are making an A-plus and I’m making about a C-minus. (Laughs)
Visit Marshall Online at tallgirl.com