During her recent show at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java, Beth Nielsen Chapman introduced “Sand and Water” as “a song that helped me get through a big loss.”
In 1994, Chapman’s first husband died of cancer. A few weeks before he passed, he asked their friend and fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell to come over and work with Beth after he passed. When Rodney heard “Sand and Water,” he told Chapman she didn’t realize what a powerful song she’d written because she was still deep in grief and mourning. The song resonated with people, and Elton John sang it “when he got tired of playing ‘Candle In the Wind.'”
Chapman has endured much in her life. Not long ago, she lost her second husband to leukemia. Before he died, he made her promise not to cancel any shows. Beth forced herself to go through with them, and found that playing for people helped her manage emotionally.
In addition to losing her two husbands to the malady, Chapman is herself a cancer survivor. In 2000, she had breast cancer. The chemotherapy, she explained, made all her hair fall out. But the experience left her stronger: She knows she’s capable of surviving almost anything. Introducing “Free” at Jammin’ Java on Nov. 10, she said there’s “nothing like chemotherapy to teach you [to persevere and ignore life’s frustrations] on a whole other level.” And she’s absolutely right: going through MRSA in my spine and spending nearly two months on infusion antibiotics was a real attitude adjustment, as was surviving a car wreck in which I loss the end of my thumb. When things get stressful, I try to take a breath and remind myself that all my body parts are still attached.
An army brat born in Texas in 1958, Chapman spent her earlier years overseas, particularly in Germany. In 1969, the family moved back to the States, settling in Birmingham, Alabama. She described the adjustment to their new home as “culture shock.” After high school, she got a publishing deal and skipped college. She released her first album in 1980, but it didn’t really go anywhere. For the next decade, she focused on her songwriting, writing tunes covered by Willie Nelson, Lorrie Morgan, Alabama, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Kathy Mattea.
In 1990, Chapman returned to music with the release of her second, self-titled album. It was followed in 1993 by You Hold The Key, then Sand and Water, in 1997. But it was a songwriter that she’s had her most success. She co-wrote Faith Hill’s smash hit, “This Kiss.” “This song put my son through college,” she told the audience.
Stream “This Kiss” by Beth Nielsen Chapman on YouTube:
Chapman played two sets Friday night. She opened the first with “Around the World.” She wrote that one with Graham Gouldman, who is best known for the Hollies’ hit “Bus Stop.” Last year, she put out the album Crazy Town, which explores “the line between sanity and insanity.” She wrote “Put A Woman In Charge” with the noted blues artist Keb’ Mo. “4leafclover,” she explain is “about falling blisteringly in love, when you’d do anything to have that person. It usually doesn’t end well, but you can look back and say, ‘Those were my wild days.'”
After “Sand and Water,” Chapman played “With Time.” The melody, she explained, came to her in about 20 minutes, but it took her five years to finish writing the lyrics. “A lot of people have gotten married to this song,” she said of “All I Have.” “It has a very low divorce rate. I think it was the love song between Jennifer and Jack on Days of Our Lives. Jennifer might’ve poisoned Jack, but they don’t count because they’re not real people.”
The set continued with “Back To This Moment,” which she wrote with May Erlewine. Next up were a couple of tunes, “Rockin’ Little Neutron Star” and “There Is No Darkness” from Grammy nominated children’s album, The Mighty Sky. “There Is No Darkness” was inspired by her being told that, no matter where you are in the universe, there’s no place completely devoid of light. Sheended the set with “It All Comes Down To Love,” which she wrote when her son went away to college.
Watch the official music video for “Back to This Moment” by Beth Nielsen Chapman on YouTube:
After a 30-minute intermission, Beth returned to the stage for a second set. In addition to her own songs and records, Chapman is sought after for teaching and songwriting workshops, and she also tries to give back. One of the ways she gives back is working with Songwritingwithsoldiers, an organization that helps veterans (and their families) process the emotions and trauma from their service through creative expression. Working with fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier and a group of soldier’s wives, they wrote “The War After The War” about the experience caregivers have of being invisible and having their own struggles.
Beth described the experience of turning those women’s songs as “like being a midwife.” Sometimes, she said, “You can be a vampire for someone else’s life, as long as you understand the emotional core.” “Years” is a song about going off to college and then coming back to the home you grew up in, which are experiences she never had.
The second set also included a couple of songs written with Kimmie Rhodes, “The Universe” and “Walk You To Heaven” (on which they were joined by Mind Smith), and the title track of Crazy Town. “Heads Up For the Wrecking Ball” is “about taking care of yourself, since God helps those who help themselves.
Chapman writes great songs, and she delivered them on Friday night in top form. The secret sauce here was her witty banter and great stories, which fleshed out a truly fine evening of music.