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On The String: Song School Is In Session With Beth Nielsen Chapman

Ed Rode
Beth Nielsen Chapman at home.

In a Music City where it can be easy to see near mutual exclusivity between songs from the heart and songs for the chart, Beth Nielsen Chapman transcends. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016 on the strength of her many hits and cuts by global stars in multiple genres, but to her fans in and beyond the music community, there was more. 

Chapman has that rare confluence of intuition, intellect and craft that we hear in the likes of Jimmy Webb or Karla Bonoff. Her songs, sturdy and structured yet elegant in their language, can take on very different shadings in the hands of diverse artists and producers, even as her own recorded versions (across 14 albums so far) feel definitive. And Chapman has taken more time than most to think through what songwriting is and how human beings might best arrange their mental furniture to conjure four-minute musical epiphanies.

“When something brilliant comes through me as a writer, it’s effortless.I’m not striving for it. I’m actually finally getting out of the way,” she says in this episode of The String, recorded at her home studio in Brentwood. Chapman is in demand for her workshops and lectures on songwriting, or more precisely on what Brian Eno called “oblique strategies” for being productive. She’s preparing to launch her first podcast, The Song School, in cooperation with Nashville’s ACME Radio.





“I believe that creative flow is a collaboration with something that’s not just who you are. I think of creative flow as just like the air in this room,” Chapman says. “Creativity doesn’t stop. It’s got a lot to do and it’s not going to hand you a song fully written very often. I’ve had one or two. Most of the time you get these fits and starts and you’ve got to work on them and then you’ve got to go back into that creative playfulness to get more raw material. And when you open to this thing, it comes through you like a channel on a radio station.”

Chapman grew up in several places as a military kid, and while her father was stationed in Germany, she took up music and songs to develop her self-awareness and to process the world. The family moved to Montgomery, AL in 1969, and she spent her teen years with her eyes open to the cultural ferment and civil rights struggle on her doorstep. As she developed musically and began playing her songs in the region, she got the attention of the great producer Barry Beckett. After getting out of a terrible first contract (great story), she was able to make her debut album in Muscle Shoals with some of the finest musicians on earth.

It was another decade before she and her husband and son moved to Nashville where she was readily welcomed by the song community. As she chased an elusive artist deal, her compositions were in demand. Tanya Tucker had a hit with “Strong Enough To Bend.” Willie Nelson went No 1 with “Nothing I Can Do About It Now.” And as the 1990s surge of commercial country music, Beth was a key part of it with major records for Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Faith Hill and others. While all of this happened, she lost her first husband to cancer and then developed and beat back cancer herself.

Chapman did get record deals, and her own albums have been consistently excellent, thanks to light production touches that keep the focus on the musicality of Chapman’s lyrics and her translucent voice. The 1997 album Sand And Water, produced by Rodney Crowell with an A-list musician cast, might be her most essential, with the shimmery pop “Happy Girl” and the remarkable title track, a song so seamless and timeless it was adopted by Elton John. Her most recent disc, 2018’s Hearts of Glass is also an essential title, with some fresh offerings and some updates of songs that have been in her library for decades. “Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes” was cut by Waylon Jennings in the 90s. “Dancer To The Drum” is Beth covering Beth, updating her own 1993 track at the urging of her producer, the recently Grammy nominated Sam Ashworth.

We talk about both of those songs and a whole lot more besides. 

Find out more about The Song School Podcast with Beth Nielsen Chapman here.