Dancing About Architecture: Marshall Chapman Tells Us Why They Came to Nashville



A successful songwriter and performer with a deep love for rock 'n’ roll, an actress who can steal the show with nary a word, a whirling ball of energy who isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks but has the decorum and grace to make you happy to hear it: That’s the sort of person you want to conduct an interview. And that’s exactly what you get from Marshall Chapman in They Came to Nashville (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010). A veteran of the scene since Exit/In was a new thing and “It’s Not Just Country!” was a novel statement, Chapman has made friends of eminent singer-songwriters by being the sort of earnest and honest person who can be in short supply when you’re a genuine star.

In 2007 and 2008, Chapman sat down with 15 diverse individuals who have “made it” in Nashville. Some are old hands, some are young guns: Willie Nelson and Bobby Bare Sr. have topped charts since the ‘60s, while Miranda Lambert set out to conquer Music City almost 40 years later. Some are household names, like Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, some you might not know unless you frequent The Bluebird or read liner notes — though if you did, you’d have seen Gary Nicholson and Don Henry hundreds of times.

Each artist is introduced via a bio sketch, focused on their relationship with Chapman. From any other interviewer, this could be construed as hubris, but with a person like Marshall Chapman, who happens to things more than things happen to her, they are adventure novels in miniature. Though some of the asides and detours could be pared back, the book wouldn't be quite as realistic without them. The editor made a wise decision to leave the dialogue as close to its original form as possible; the way Chapman interrupts to clarify a point or encourage a more complete answer brings you right into the room in a very subtle way.

Ostensibly chats with friends and neighbors over a cup of coffee or a beer, these conversations bring the idols down off of their pedestals without diminishing them; despite their fame and/or notoriety, they are presented here as regular folks who happen to have some extraordinary stories. Just as important, the overarching visceral sense of the first-timer experience is appealing and inspiring, no matter what kind of music suits your fancy. It’s a nice reminder that John Hiatt got his start here sleeping under a picnic table, and Rodney Crowell had to negotiate some white-knuckle scenarios — namely, wrecking his girlfriend’s dad’s car, the vehicle in question being Johnny Cash’s Cadillac.

The unifying theme: Each of these folks strove to get here, with or without a plan. By plane, by bus, by a bottle of uppers and a rattle-trap car, all were drawn in, and stuck it out through the initial struggles. Those who left came back as soon as possible. Though the sounds may have changed in the intervening decades, take a look at the concert listings on almost any night, and I think you'll agree that the current of creativity here is just as strong now as it was when Bobby Bare would fly in to cut a few sides:

So, Bobby, tell me one thing that could only have happened in Nashville … a Nashville memory … just a Nashville anything.
Well, when I was living in L.A., I was flying in here to record, and the one thing I distinctly remember was … I would get off that plane and immediately feel the vibe. It was like electricity in the air. There was so much going on. It was like electricity. And I would join up with it, you know?

It’d get on you.
Yeah. It would get on you. You couldn’t help but get caught up in it. You’d get very creative and want to do something. It was magic.

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