At 64, Marshall Chapman can look back over her 13 albums, her two books (Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, They Came to Nashville), her 1998 Off-Broadway musical (Good Ol’ Girls) and her role as Gwyneth Paltrow’s road manager in the film Country Strong and proudly proclaim she’s a mainstay in the rockabilly tradition. She goes way, way back. For example, her 1978 album, Jaded Virgin, was voted “Record of the Year” by the late, great Stereo Review. Reportedly, her songs have been recorded by the likes of Sawyer Brown, Ronnie Milsap, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, Dion, John Hiatt, and Olivia Newton-John. Now, while still not exactly a household name, Chapman has a happy following who are certainly hopeful her new Blaze of Glory isn’t her metaphorical swan song.
Clearly, the seasoned Chapman is on something of a rock and roll roll. Three years back, The Philadelphia Inquirer named her Big Lonesome as the “Best Country/Roots Album of 2010.” Realizing the band for that record was just what the doctor ordered, Chapman called on the same line-up for Blaze of Glory including Mike Utley, Will Kimbrough, Jim Mayer, and Casey Wood. You’d think these players have been together for years. Not only are all these musicians restrained and precise, the production is so clean, you might think you can eat off the disc.
In fact, Blaze of Glory is a full-course meal filled with many familiar ingredients from the roots rock musical cupboard. Right off the bat, “Love in the Wind,” a duet with Todd Snider, is conspicuously a take on the Bo Diddley riff. No surprise, “Nearness of You” sounds like an old classic ballad out of the Sun Records catalog. One of the set’s two covers, it was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington in 1940, and has been interpreted by everyone from the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Bing Crosby to Etta James. The other cover, the walking bass strut of “Blues Stay Away from Me” was originally recorded by the Delmore Brothers in 1949 before becoming a standard covered by folks like Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, and the Everly Brothers.
Among Chapman’s own compositions, you’ll think the crying-time country of Patsy Cline in “Not Afraid to Die.” Going back even further, the down and dirty “Dreams & Memories” is built on the melody line for “St. James Infirmary.” Other love songs are evocative of more recent artists. “I Don’t Want Nobody” is reminiscent of ’70s vintage Bonnie Raitt. There’s a touch of Fleetwood Mac, namely the drum part for “Second Hand News,” in the country-fried “Let’s Make Waves.” And there’s a splash of The Band, especially a nod to Garth Hudson’s organ in “Waiting for the Music.”
Perhaps the cleverest offering is “Call the Lamas,” in which the singer sees a beatific little Buddha at the check-out in the grocery store. You don’t hear many transcendental mantras in this genre, that’s for sure.
It all comes together in the simmering grand finale, “Blaze of Glory,” where the singer looks back over her rock and roll past that began when she saw Elvis in 1956. “I never intended to make it this far,” Chapman sings. “I never had a fallback plan/I always thought I’d go in a blaze of glory.”
So if Blaze of Glory sounds like it has all the ingredients you like in your old school cookbook, it’s hard to go wrong with the country-fried collection as a whole. Most folks will no doubt pick and choose favorites depending on their taste, but the good news is most listeners will find at least one or two special tunes that resonate with their own experiences. Marshall Chapman takes rock and roll full circle, and the roots couldn’t shine any brighter.