NASHVILLE — When Nashville singer-songwriter and author Marshall Chapman stepped barefoot onto the same Ryman Auditorium stage where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and many other legends had performed, the nearly 3,000 fans mostly there to see the Indigo Girls had no idea what they were in for.
Performing her first solo set at the Ryman in her 50-year career, Chapman hit them with songs and stories that earned her lots of spontaneous applause, laughs, and a few poignant moments of silence.
I hadn’t seen Chapman in front of such a large crowd since 1996, when her old friend Willie Nelson invited her to perform for tens of thousands at Farm Aid at the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.
On this late September night, she connected with the Ryman audience from the start, as she launched into her signature rocker, “Why Can’t I Be Like Other Girls?” (originally from her 1978 album, Jaded Virgin):
“Back in 1956, I was seven
And the second grade was going real slow
I could read, I could write
But learning to be white
Was nothing that I needed to know
‘Cause I’d seen Elvis Presley
I was running ‘round singing the blues
I remember the words my mama said
When I asked her for them blue suede shoes
She said to me: Why can’t you be like other girls?...”
After the sly, clever “Goodbye Forever” (from her 1996 album Love Slave), Chapman then introduced a familiar rock ‘n roll classic.
The crowd applauded with recognition of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” Chapman’s only cover song of the night. Some in the audience sang along. Chapman introduced the classic as “the best song ever written about what it’s like to be a rock ‘n roll musician on the road.”She covered the song beautifully on her 2020 album of covers, Songs I Can’t Live Without (and earlier on Jaded Virgin.)
Then her own story-songs took over, showing why Chapman fit the Americana genre before there was such a thing. Her music is roots and rock ‘n roll more than anything, but with strong soul and country influences. Her songs have been sung by Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker, Jimmy Buffett and a host of others.
The crowd hushed for “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,” which is also the title of her heartfelt, wild-and-wooly autobiography. The book contains stories of her adventures with Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
In an age of separation and hostility, she got the audience singing along on “I Love Everybody,” which she wrote with the late Tim Krekel.
Then she unleashed “Alabama Bad,” eliciting a response from the Indigo Girls’ followers not unlike that of the audience on Chapman’s 1995 record It’s About Time: Recorded Live at the Tennessee State Prison for Women.
The song carries one of her best lines (among many), about a girlfriend—a real character known for getting a little boisterous at the bar:
“She laughs when they play
‘Stand By Your Man’
She’s trash but you love her
She’s Alabama bad
Trash but you love her
She’s Alabama bad”
Going out with glory
The audience seemed touched by Chapman’s songs and spirit—except for a few especially chatty fans during a quiet moment of her performance.
“Is that a bridal party?” Chapman asked from the stage to an especially noisy corner of the audience on the auditorium floor.
Her question drew laughs, reflecting the mood of many longtime Nashvillians about the dominance of downtown revelers. Marshall moved to Nashville in the 1960s after coming to Vanderbilt University from the textile mill city of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She told the crowd she's planning a move to Pawleys Island, South Carolina soon.
On her drive to the show that night, a party wagon full of revelers had turned on the street in front of her, Chapman told the audience: “Well, they can kiss my ass!”
People hooped and hollered their agreement.
When she closed with the moving title song from her excellent 2013 album Blaze of Glory, things came full circle, a worthy possible capstone to 54 years in Music City.
In the song, she describes accompanying her family’s housekeeper to see a young Elvis Presley perform (along with the Louvin Brothers and others) in Spartanburg in 1956. Her life was forever changed. As was everyone else’s.
When he walked out on stage
It shook us to the core
That colored balcony
Came crashing to the floor
… in a blaze of glory
When she was done, the audience rose to their feet to applaud a legend that many had heard for the first time.
MORE: Our feature profile of Marshall Chapman, with her stories of growing up in the South, seeing Elvis, hanging with many legends and even a final visit with the great John Prine.