More than 50 years after she left Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Nashville, Marshall Chapman returned to her hometown to share her songs and stories from the same stage she'd played as a 6 year old during a piano recital.
Joined by two of Nashville's most talented and literate artists, she opened her April 16 homecoming concert, appropriately, with Gram Parsons’ Hickory Wind, his ode to South Carolina and a longing for home.
On a deep stage with towering pipes and an organ in the background, Chapman and her longtime singer-songwriter friends and collaborators Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, each performed their own songs, adding a little humor to their poignant observations on life, love, and the American South.
Someone asked Chapman earlier why she was playing Converse College’s larger, historic Twichell Auditorium on this trip to Spartanburg — rather than the Chapman Cultural Center, the city’s beautiful, newer concert hall bearing her family’s name.
“We’re just gonna play Twichell, by God,” she answered.
Kimbrough, who many know from his work with Emmylou Harris' Red Dirt Boys, opened with Mud Bottom, about an old hangout spot near his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. It's a place where the Dog River empties into Mobile Bay and “you could get in that water just about year-round and not get too cold,” he said. Kimbrough released the song with the band Willie Sugarcapps, his side project with other musicians originally from Alabama.
(Photo at top of story: Will Kimbrough, Marshall Chapman and Tommy Womack, from left to right, played songs and shared stories at a concert on April 16 at Converse College's Twichell Auditorium in Spartanburg, South Carolina.)
Womack then launched into one of his many hilarious — and often moving — punk-influenced tunes: Vicky Smith Blues, a rambunctious number about his first crush. Whether truth of fiction, it seems young Ms. Smith had started wearing hot pants when Womack was still playing Hot Wheels with her little brother.
The show was acoustic, that didn’t keep Chapman from pouring herself into one of her best rockers, I Don’t Want Nobody, which sounds like the Rolling Stones if they were fronted by a blues woman with a distinct drawl — and Chapman qualifies. She don't want nobody calling her honey unless it's “Funky” Donnie Fritts, the late Muscle Shoals musician who helped inspire the song.
Kimbrough followed with Soulfully, his wonderful ballad inspired by Spooner Oldham and later recorded by Jimmy Buffett. Then Womack sang about cherishing the small joys of life in the face of ultimate doom in Nice Day.
Chapman responded by reading an essay she wrote about her beloved late Aunt Susan from Spartanburg. The essay ended with Aunt Susan, twice-widowed by the age of 81, going for a spontaneous swim with Chapman.
She also sang her Betty’s Bein' Bad, a No. 1 country hit in 1987 for the band Sawyer Brown. After she learned that the popular group would release her song as a single — and this was back when hit records really sold a lot — she hit the floor of her one-room cinderblock apartment as she cried, “Thank you, Jesus!”
Kimbrough played his slinky title song from one of his recent albums, I Like It Down Here, declaring his love for the strange richness of the South.
It’s hard to imagine any singer-songwriter other than Womack pulling off a song about the aftermath of his bladder cancer, but he did just that on Little Bit of Sex Part 2, from his newest solo album, I Thought I Was Fine.
And only Chapman could write and sing another of her rockers, Why Can’t I Be Like Other Girls, quoting her late mother directly asking why she wanted to be so rebellious rather than stay in Spartanburg, marry and carry forth her family’s mill-owning legacy. “Whoever told you you could be you?” she sang in one of the song's most stinging lines.
Any artist who plays 200 shows a year becomes familiar with laundromats, and Kimbrough qualifies. His Wash and Fold addresses this phenomenon. The song was also inspired by his growing up on the Gulf Coast and spending many summers as a child in Slidell, across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans.
Many of Kimbrough's songs have an Afro-Caribbean musical thread, and this particularly funky number appeared on an album by Daddy, a former band that featured him and Womack. The duo also were key members of The Bis-Quits, a great 1990s band that released an album on John Prine's Oh Boy Records label.
Womack played Rock 'n Roll Retirement Home from his longtime band Government Cheese's forthcoming album, Love. Chapman noted that Rolling Stone once called Womack's Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock 'n Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, “the best book ever written about a rock 'n roll band flying under the radar.”
Later, it was time for a little musical nirvana as Chapman sang her mystical song, Call the Lamas, about a baby she saw in the checkout line at the Sunshine Grocery in Nashville. “I saw little Buddha in the checkout line at the grocery store ... today,” she sang.
Kimbrough, who works with the nonprofit Songwriting with Soldiers, next offered the Ballad of Cape Henry, his song about events off the coast of Virginia during the American Revolution. He sang it as a tribute to Jack Jeter, a Vietnam War veteran and father of the concert's organizer John Jeter. The elder Jeter stood and was recognized with applause during the performance. The younger Jeter formerly owned The Handlebar, a music venue in nearby Greenville that's deeply missed.
Having an older brother cool enough to jump the fence at Graceland and join a game of touch football with Elvis Presley and his gang was enough for Womack to write a song about him. I Wish I’d Known You Better makes you think of anyone you've lost, but Womack wrote it for his late brother, Wayman, and his sister-in-law, Lou, who once rejected Elvis’ advance at a drive-in burger joint in Memphis in 1955.
Drawn to music meccas, Kimbrough sang his Stax- and Royal Studios-inspired number When I Get to Memphis, about a musician who leaves the Bluff City for New Orleans but misses his love back home in Nashville. It was among his most complex and gorgeous guitar accompaniments of the show.
Womack’s final number of the night was a stream-of-consciousness rock-rap inspired by the strange name of a rock band he saw on a poster: Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood. (Chapman's sister later called it “The Bohemian Rhapsody of Americana.”)
A longtime Nashville resident, Chapman recently bought a house at Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where she and her partner, Chris, would escape during the pandemic.
“I just wanted to go down there and breathe,” she said.
She found it profound, however, to perform again with her talented friends. “What I miss most about Nashville is what you’re hearing up here tonight,” she said, her voice breaking, as she fought back tears.
One of the most authentic singer-songwriters of her generation, Chapman added that a key to writing great songs — as she’s done for (or with) a long list of greats such as Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt, Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Ronnie Milsap (and the list goes on) — is getting out of a story’s way.
She closed with Blaze of Glory, the title song from one of her more recent albums, and how she once thought a wild life might lead her to an early departure along the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass and so many more.
The song also recounts Chapman’s experience seeing Elvis in 1956 with her family's cook/babysitter from the “colored balcony” at Spartanburg’s Carolina Theater, changing her world and making her witness to how music and art were reflecting the changes to come.
Always a rebel, Chapman came back to her hometown a hero for her originality and daring spirit. She had to feel that embrace.
ALSO: Check out Will Kimbrough's latest two singles in the videos below (following Marshall Chapman's Blaze of Glory), and the earlier SoulCountry feature on Kimbrough and his powerful song Alabama (for Michael Donald).