‘Moving to Nashville from Mobile was overwhelming’

Beth Nielsen Chapman reflects on making it in the Music City

BETH NIELSEN Chapman, one of Nashville’s foremost singer-songwriters, comes to the Black Box Theatre next week for what promises to be a memorable gig. An accomplished recording artist in her own right, Chapman has also penned numerous hits for Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Waylon Jennings, Faith Hill, and Willie Nelson.

On her new album, Uncovered, Beth rolls out a batch of songs that have been covered by other artists, but which she has never recorded herself. Most were Top 10 hits, and seven made No 1. Her writing prowess shines through on the collection, from the infectious pop sensibilities of ‘This Kiss’ and ‘Simple Things’ to the strains of bluegrass and country in ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ and ‘Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now’. It is also clear she has no trouble bringing them home and making them her own once again.

“When I first went to Nashville it was very daunting,” Chapman tells me over a morning phone call. “I’d never lived in a town that was full of people trying to do the same thing as me! I had lived all over because my father was in the Air Force, I was everywhere from Germany to New England to Texas to California and then we settled in Alabama which is where I started writing songs and playing guitar.

“Moving to Nashville from Mobile was overwhelming and furthermore, just after I moved there, I completely lost my singing voice out of sheer terror. But I made friends and hung in there and things started happening about three years after I moved. The first big hit I had was ‘Strong Enough to Bend’ and from there the doors started opening a bit more.”

It was a chance meeting with a Beach Boy that gave Beth the initial impulse to up sticks for Tennessee.

“I was living in Mobile and was not in a hurry to move to Nashville, I was afraid of rejection,” she recalls. “My husband Ernest was insisting I go and I kept saying ‘No’. Then one night I was playing in this bar and Bruce Johnston from The Beach Boys came in and sat right in front of me. I played a few of my songs and he kept saying to me ‘Play something else you wrote.’ After the gig he came up and said I should go to Nashville, so I ran home and announced ‘We’re going to Nashville’ and my poor husband was ‘I’ve been trying to get you to do this for six months’ and I replied ‘But you’re not one of The Beach Boys!’ I needed a professional to give me that kick in the butt.”

Several of the tracks on Uncovered were recorded in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“I love to record over there, there’s a different feel with the musicians,” Chapman declares. “I’d love to come and record in Ireland at some point. I think people from different parts of the world have different ways of interpreting music.

“It was really fun to take a song like ‘Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now’ into the studio with these Scottish musicians and they just brought it to this whole other place that was so much fun. I love coming over and letting the music breathe in a different environment.”

‘Nothin’ I Can Do About it Now’ was written for the great Willie Nelson.

“Many of the songs I wrote that were hits, I wasn’t writing specifically for those artists, I was just writing for the song and following that,” she says. “When I was asked to write a song for Willie I think I locked myself in my writing room for three months trying to make the song really good so that I felt proud of it.

“Even though I worked really hard on it and was happy with it I still never thought in a million years he would actually cut it. So when I got a phone call a couple of days later that he was cutting it, and I got flown to Austin, and brought to the studio to play guitar on the record and sing harmony, it was just a dream. It was so funny because his studio is in the middle of a golf course, it’s called The Putt Putt Studio.”

Writing for Willie led directly to Beth hooking up with his Outlaw amigo Waylon Jennings, who co-wrote Uncovered’s ‘Sweet Love Shine’.

“Willie ended up cutting five of my songs, then Waylon called me on the phone one day and said ‘Hey man, write me something!’” she reveals. “I wrote a song for him that I’ve never recorded, called ‘Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes’. You wouldn’t think that would be a good title for a Waylon song but right about the time he asked me to write for him he had quadruple bypass surgery. I was trying to write this Outlaw song then I realised ‘He’s gonna want to sing something different’ and he sure did.

“We became friends and started writing stuff together, one of our favourite songs is ‘Sweet Love Shine’. Getting to know him was so much fun, it brought me back to when I was a teenager in Alabama and listening to all those records. I couldn’t believe I would end up working with two of my big heroes, Willie and Waylon.”

Chapman has recorded several albums, including one comprising Latin hymns, and that side of her music is represented on Uncovered by ‘Pray’

“‘Pray’, for me, crosses all the lines,” she says. “It’s a song of deep spiritual connection. I’ve sung it at so many different gigs and it seems to touch people from all different backgrounds and cultures. I love that song. I wrote it with a wonderful musician called Muriel Anderson. I love working with other musicians, it ups my own standards and makes me work that bit harder.”

One of Chapman’s biggest hits was ‘This Kiss’, for Faith Hill, which was ASCAP’s 1999 Song Of The Year. It also garnered a Grammy nomination and Nashville NAMMY 1999 Songwriter of the Year.

“With ‘This Kiss’ we originally wrote it as a pop/r’n’b demo but it never got recorded,” she states. “So we moved it into a country style, Faith Hill took it and had a massive hit with it. I always played it in my shows but I never felt I could record it; when someone has done a really good job on your song you don’t need to do it again.

Uncovered came after I was looking at which of my songs I hadn’t recorded. Sometimes it takes me a while to adjust to other artists’ versions. I pretty much went back to my original versions on this album. The Willie Nelson one was one of the most different because the beat on his record is more like a shuffle and of course his phrasing is completely different but it still went to No 1 so hey, I won’t quibble with that!”

Beth Nielsen Chapman plays the Black Box on Thursday September 25 at 8pm. Tickets are €22.50/20 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie Also Check out The Galway Advertiser's Beth Nielsen Chapman Essential Songs Playlist.

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