Road trip: Surviving life, one hit at a time, with songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman

Beth Nielson Chapman is a firm believer in the healing power of music. Her new album is 'Hearts of Glass'
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You might not know the name Beth Nielsen Chapman. But chances are you know her songs.

Royalties from Faith Hill’s 1999 megahit This Kiss put Chapman’s son through college. Chapman also penned chart-toppers for Willie Nelson (Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now) and Tanya Tucker (Strong Enough to Bend), among others. Elton John performed her song Sand and Water as a tribute to the late Princess Diana. In 2016, Chapman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“I started writing songs when I was 11, when I started noticing that the world was a scary place,” the Nashville singer-songwriter said earlier this month at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, where she sang and gave workshops at the edge of the Berkshires in upstate New York.

Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, August 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Since her youth in Montgomery, Ala., during the turbulent late 1960s, Chapman has embraced the power of music to inspire, and to heal. Her guitar and piano have helped her surmount enough personal scares and sorrows to populate a lifetime of country songs.

Chapman’s first boyfriend died from a brain tumor. Cancer took her first husband, too, leaving her to raise their son, then 12.

A few years later, she battled breast cancer. More recently, surgeons removed a brain tumor (fortunately, benign) that had been impeding her lyrical ability. Last year, her second husband was diagnosed with leukemia.

“Songs and writing, absolutely have been my go-to medicine. It has been how I’ve grieved. It’s been how I’ve celebrated, and it’s just been the center of my life,” said Chapman, 63.

Video: Beth Nielsen Chapman sings ‘This Kiss’ at Falcon Ridge:

‘MAKE PRETTY NOTES’

She firmly believes anyone can sing, or tap other creative impulses, to cope with life’s highs and lows. In October 2019, PBS is scheduled to air Songwriting With:Soldiers, a concert that includes songs Chapman helped soldiers write about their traumatic experiences in Afghanistan.

Song therapy can be a difficult process. While undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, Chapman felt like a “beached whale.” She struggled to pick up a guitar or play the piano for a few minutes each day, with an audio recorder running.

“I wasn’t trying to write anything. I was just: ‘Make pretty notes,’ you know. And I thought this will be just a bunch of stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. But I felt like I needed to keep my relationship with it, and show up.”

After the treatments, she listened to the recordings. Some beautiful melodies emerged from the noodling.

Video: Beth Nielsen Chapman sings ‘Sand and Water’ at Falcon Ridge:

That’s one of the messages from her workshops, which are as much about life as they are about music. When you think you cannot go on…you can. And you do. You may shut down for awhile, she acknowledges. Just remember: Your story is as worthy and fascinating as anyone else’s.

“The things that stop people from being creative, are really very, very universal: The voice in your head that says nobody really cares. Why would what I have to say about anything matter? And that’s a fundamental place that we all share, the place where we lack self-worth. In some way, we all have a version of that in our lives.”

Through artistic self-expression, Chapman contends, “you’re actually creating a higher vibration of yourself in the world, across the board, as a person of worth.

Nashville songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, standing, shares stage with (from left) Crys Matthews, Stephen Kellogg and Martyn Joseph, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, August 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“What I tell my students is, if I waited until the voices in my head stop telling me that I suck, I’d never write a song. The part of my brain that says ‘you suck,’ I pour it a cup of tea, I give it a magazine and say, ‘interrupt me at any time.'”

Trying to fend off that internal naysayer would siphon off too much creative energy, in other words.

“So you just let it babble on and you just don’t pay any attention to it.”

‘THE HEART IS LIKE AN ACCORDION’

Chapman, who last year released her 13th solo album, Hearts of Glass, has learned other lessons since moving to Nashville in 1985:

**Don’t imitate anybody.** She nearly ruined her voice early on, striving to sing like her friend Kathy Mattea.

Invited to write a song for Willie Nelson, Chapman attempted to imitate the feel of his signature hit, On the Road Again.  She was certain Nelson would strike pay dirt with her tune Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now … until she heard it rearranged by Nelson’s drummer.

Sheepishly, she mentioned this to Nelson. He trusted his drummer, an old pal. Crestfallen, Chapman kept this venture to herself, fearing she had written Willie Nelson’s first flop.

Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman shares a joke, at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, August 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Hearing it on the radio for the first time, however, Chapman was so thrilled she blew through a red light and got a ticket. (“That’s the best one I ever heard,” the cop said when Chapman tried to explain.)

Evidently, Willie Nelson and his drummer knew a thing or two about their craft.

“Damn, that’s really good!” she realized. When the song hit No. 1, she bragged to her amazed friends. “I said, ‘Yeah. That’s exactly the way I wrote it, too.”

Video: Beth Nielsen Chapman sings ‘Nothin I Can Do About It Now’ at Falcon Ridge:

**It pays to be patient.**  Inevitably, Chapman’s best songs — even the seemingly can’t-miss This Kiss–take two years to find an artist and get released. She needed 18 years to complete her favorite work, the deeply introspective Epitaph for Love.

**Be kind to those around you.** “Everybody starts out somewhere…and they’re going to be the next big thing,” Chapman said.

The receptionist at the Nashville company where Chapman first churned out songs turned out to be Trisha Yearwood.  And the 18-year-old guy who ran off tape copies for Chapman grew up to manage Taylor Swift.

“There were a lot of people who weren’t nice to Garth Brooks. So when he made it, he’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m not writing with you.’ I mean, he remembers that stuff,” Chapman said.

Most importantly…

**Be grateful for every day — even the tough ones.**

Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman with fans in the merch tent during brief rain shower, at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, August 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Some of the most alive people I know have tiptoed around death or been sick and had to deal with stuff,” Chapman said.

Beating cancer, a terrifying and arduous journey, ultimately was an “infusion of life.

“You get it. Like, red is red or blue is blue. Things taste more amazing, and time is more precious. People that you care about, you care even more deeply about.”

Tested and tempered by life, Chapman chooses optimism. America will heal its divisions.

I don’t believe it. I know it…. I’ll never be a person who goes ‘Oh, it’s all useless.’ That’s because cancer has taught me how to be resilient.”

And to believe in love. After the death of her husband Ernest, she could not imagine starting anew with anyone. Yet she did. And cherished memories were undiminished.

“The heart is like an accordion, you know?” Chapman reflected. “It just grows more bellows.”


SCENES FROM FALCON RIDGE 2019:

Welcome to Slambovia: The Slambovian Circus of Dreams is a perennial favorite at Falcon Ridge. Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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Falcon Ridge performers, including the BoDeans, the Pamela Means Band, Low Lily, the Gaslight Tinkers, the Nields, Crys Matthews, Stephen Kellogg and Martyn Joseph:
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The scene: Falcon Ridge at Dodds Farm:
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