Read: Marshall Chapman’s “Nashville”

 

 

Published
this week by Vanderbilt University
Press and featuring a foreword by Peter Guralnick, songwriter Chapman’s newest
volume probes the minds of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson,
Rodney Crowell and more.

 

By Steve Pick

 

It doesn’t sound like the most promising idea you’ve ever
heard. Who wants to read a book of interviews about the first day people spent
in a given city? What kind of car did you drive? What hotel did you stay in? Do
you remember the first time you heard of this city? These kinds of questions
seem likely to lead to the most pedestrian replies possible, right?

 

Well, it helps if the people being questioned are
celebrities, most specifically some of the finest country-based
singer-songwriters and musicians of our time. And it’s even better if the
interviewer has a long-term relationship with most of the subjects, so that the
answers are always elaborated with details which might not be shared with a
professional journalist. But the number one reason to read They Came to Nashville, a new book of such interviews, is that it
is Marshall Chapman setting the context and asking the questions. Her
songwriting, live performances complete with between-song patter, and of
course, her previous memoir of a sort, 2004’s Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, have proved over and over that she
is charming and quirkily intelligent enough to invigorate any subject. If
Marshall Chapman wanted to ask her friends about their favorite bathrooms, the
book would probably turn out to be vastly entertaining.

 

Caveat: don’t bother to read this book if you don’t have
some previous knowledge of at least a portion of the musicians being
interviewed. It’s not that you won’t find yourself wanting to hear records by
Rodney Crowell or Bobby Bare or John Hiatt. Chapman’s brief introductions and
the tone of the conversations is more than enough to pique interest in artists
previously unknown. But you’ll be frustrated when Crowell, for example, is left
sleeping on a picnic table near Nashville’s Parthenon, and you only get hints
of how he went on to write and record so many incredible records in the next 35
years. (You do, however, get a couple of incredibly funny Johnny Cash stories
in the bargain.)

 

 

That said, it’s fascinating to hear the tales of Kris
Kristofferson living in a hovel while trying to sell his songs – imagine a time
when “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “Me and Bobby McGee” were merely numbers
heard in the occasional guitar circle. It’s delightful to have the Emmylou
Harris interview interrupted by one of her 20 or so dogs, or her mother who
lives with her, and the tales of Harris’ early days in Nashville are far less romantic than some.
It’s invigorating to hear how Beth Nielsen Chapman overcame so many problems to
turn into one of the most successful songwriters of the ‘90s.  On the disappointing side, the interview with
Mary Gauthier, a fabulous songwriter with a very intriguing backstory, suffers
from the lack of a close connection between her and Chapman. And Miranda
Lambert just hasn’t lived long enough to really be able to engage her past,
though the germ of an interesting story is in place.

 

And then there is the chapter on Willie Nelson. It’s 45
pages, while most of the other interviews take up an average of 15. It’s full
of rich and hilarious details, triumph and a sort of tragedy, and could
probably only be improved by having Chapman read it aloud. (If you’ve heard her
speak, with that upper class South
Carolina accent tinged with Nashville drawl, you’d want to hear her say
anything you can think of, too.) Suffice it to say that Nelson answers all the
same questions, but so much more about him is revealed when he’s not talking at
all. It’s an absolute tour de force of a chapter, one of the most insightful
pieces of writing about music you’ll find, and it’s also just Chapman telling
what happens and what she sees and does.

 

It’s sometimes too easy to assume our musical heroes are
somehow superhuman, but every one of these interviews, and the chapter on
Willie Nelson, reveal just how human and normal they really are. Sure, talent
is something special, but Chapman realizes that great insights can be generated
after remembering details about the car driven for the first time to the city
where music dreams were accomplished.

 

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