"I’m just a black man trapped in a white woman’s body": Questions for Marshall Chapman

Posted by David Klein on Sat, Jan 22, 2011 at 10:41 AM

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  • Photo by Anthony Scarlati

There may not be a harder-working woman in country music than Marshall Chapman. She's a musician, songwriter, journalist and actress. In her four decades-plus on the scene, she's played with, or had her songs performed by, or interviewed such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker and dozens of other leading lights.

Last year, Good Ol' Girls, a musical she collaborated on with Triangle literati Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith, received a Broadway run.

And she acted with Gwyneth Paltrow, in the recently released Country Strong.

This weekend, she's in the Triangle for a pair of events. She's performing tonight at a house concert in Durham (sold out, sorry) and tomorrow at 2 p.m., she'll be at McIntyre's Fine Books at Fearrington Village to promote her newly released book, They Came to Nashville, a collection of interviews and profiles. Her website is here.

Her latest album is called Big Lonesome, and when we caught up with her by telephone on Friday, she told us she was operating in a sleep-deprived state due to the demands of promoting a record and a book simultaneously.

ARTERY: It seems like for all of the over-produced commercial stuff that comes out of Nashville, there is still an allure for younger, hipper musicians to come there and struggle to make it.

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: The talent level is phenomenal. There are more musicians living in Nashville now than there are in New York or LA. There’s a husband and wife team, the Wrights, do you know them? Adam Wright plays guitar like Dick Dale meet Daniel Lanois. You can hear five to 10 acts that good on any given night.

Back in the late ‘70s, you did an interview in which you described the town as a “really weird place, where everybody wants to make a hit record,” and you even said there’s no place to hear live music anymore. What’s changed?

I think the Internet changed it. You can make a living.

We didn't see Country Strong but we saw the nice mention you got in The New York Times. What was the movie-making experience like for you?

I have great insurance and so does my husband. It was really enjoyable, like summer camp for lovable eccentrics. And Gwyneth Paltrow was just great to work with.

She’s got some serious pipes, huh?

She’s got a wonderful voice. Better than half the slickly produced stuff out there right now.

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You’ve done your memoirs [Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (2003)], but They Came to Nashville comes from a slightly different place. How did that come about?

The first line of the book is, “The night I met Billy Joe Shaver, my hair caught on fire.” When that line came to me, everything just followed. I said, ‘Uh oh, I have to write a book now.’”

Having been in the spotlight and behind the scenes, and various levels in between, would you say you’ve found the sweet spot?

That’s a good way of putting it. This year has been the best year of my life; I made the best record I ever made [Big Lonesome], which the Philadelphia Inquirer named among their top 10 “country roots” albums of the year. I worked on a musical called Good Ol' Girls with the authors Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, which opened on Broadway; I turned 62, which was as old as my father was when he went from seeming like a man of 35 to…just gone, all in the space of three weeks, from cancer.

You seem to favor a handful of chords in your songs.

Well, I did a Hank Williams cover on Big Lonesome that had some jazz chords in it, but basically I subscribe to the school of “three chords and the truth.”

What can people expect at your reading at McIntyre's?

I always bring my guitar to my readings. And my concerts are like 80 percent music. So I like to describe what I do as R&W: rhythm and words.

Kind of a blues notion. In your song “Why Can’t You Be Like Other Girls,” you sang, “Learning to be white was nothing I needed to know.”Still true?”

I’m just a black man trapped in a white woman’s body, and it’s too late for the NBA.

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