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Marshall Chapman: ‘I was just thinking I wanted to honor my friend. I didn’t know I would create something that would make me feel like he was with me.’

The Spirit Abides, The Prodigal Returns
Marshall Chapman honors her late friend Tim Krekel with Big Lonesome, her strongest set of songs yet. Not bad, considering she was never going to make another record.
By David McGee

Tim Krekel was not a household name, but he had a way of making himself known, notably when he strapped on a guitar and started speaking the poetry that was his signature sound. Oh, he could go toe-to-toe with any technician in the business, but what Krekel had in abundance, and what separated him from the pack of pickers, was soul. Undaunted, unfettered, good rockin’ soul. It’s all over his eight solo albums; it’s the reason his band the Sluggers were highly regarded roots rockers; it’s the reason Jimmy Buffett hired him as a lead guitarist in the Buffett touring band; it’s why artists ranging from Alan Jackson to Patty Loveless to Martina McBride to Delbert McClinton to Jason and the Scorchers recorded his songs.

The Kentucky-born Krekel also had a well-earned reputation as a good guy, a devoted friend, someone you could count on on whose word was his honor. He had a lot of those qualities lost by too many stars on their ascent to household name status. The love of his family, the respect of his peers—these were things Krekel held most dear.

Tim Krekel, solo acoustic, ‘Can’t Cry Anymore, at Hippie Jack’s, Memorial Day 2007

One of those peers is Marshall Chapman, who was touched by Krekel’s generosity and support early in her career and became metaphysically joined to his hip. A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, the tousled haired blonde burst onto the national scene as an Epic artist in the late ‘70s, with her 1978 Al Kooper-produced Jaded Virgin album earning across the board rave reviews. She had all the tools—tough guitar player, dazzling writer, earthy singer, as comfortable a rocker as she was a country gal, real presence as a personality with her earthy southern humor, warm southern drawl and—well, let’s not mince words—she looks mighty fine in a pair of blue jeans, too. (The door prize this month goes to anyone who submits a photo of Chapman in a dress. It sez here such an image does not exist.)

Despite the good word of mouth about her exciting live shows, despite a mountain of adulatory press, despite the consistent high quality of her songs, the brass ring was not to be hers. She’s not the only gifted artist who seemed destined for the upper echelon and didn’t quite make it, but at least she didn’t subvert her own cause. Sometimes all the best efforts don’t add up. Undaunted, with artistry intact, she found other ways of making herself known. Songwriting always worked—Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Wynonna, Irma Thomas, et al. have Chapman songs in their recorded oeuvres. With her hit songwriting buddy Matraca Berg she collaborated on Good Ol’ Girls, a country musical based on the stories of Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, which is still playing throughout the south and southeast and earlier this year had a limited off-Broadway run. In 2003 she published her first book, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (St. Martin’s Press), which was a 2004 SIBA Book Award finalist and a finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. From 2004 to 2007 she developed a one-woman show, “The Triumph of Rock and Roll Over Good Breeding,” wrote commentary for The Bob Edwards Show on XM, and is currently a contributing editor for Garden & Gun, Vanderbilt Magazine and Nashville Arts Magazine. And she’s getting ready to make her big screen debut as an actress, playing Gwyneth Paltrow’s road manager in the forthcoming Country Strong (ironic, huh, that the one cast member who can really sing country is relegated to a speaking role, whereas the star who is no more a country singer than Jon Bon Jovi…oh, well), while also promoting another new book, a collection of interviews she conducted with other songwriters titled They Came To Nashville.

But records have been few and far between for Chapman since the Epic era: two on her own Tall Girl label (1987 and 1991), a live album recorded at the Tennessee State Prison for Women in 1995, and nothing more until 2006’s Mellowicious. But she never stopped playing, writing or touring, and one of those tours brought her band the Love Slaves on the road opening for Jimmy Buffett in 1987, and into his lead guitarist Tim Krekel’s orbit.

marshal chapman
‘The great thing about Tim is that he loved me. I just know that he loved me, and I loved him, and we had a great friendship. I think it’s all over the record.’

“I was aware of him” before the Buffett tour, Chapman said recently by phone while on a promotional jaunt for her new album, Big Lonesome, a tribute to Krekel on which he is not merely invoked and evoked, but actually appears, playing like nobody’s business. “But then we ended up in Jimmy Buffett’s band together in the summer of 1987. Tim and I just became great friends. And I was the only woman, I think, in that whole deal. Tim and I started hanging out together. I remember in Washington we went to the Smithsonian together and rode on the subway. Somewhere in the middle of Kansas we walked what seemed like 50 miles from our hotel out in the middle of a cornfield, to go see this horrible movie. We just did stuff together, and we became friends. But then after the tour was over we each went our own separate ways. I just liked him, you know.”

Buffett released Chapman’s live prison album on his own Margaritaville label and once again offered a tour opening slot to Chapman and the Love Slaves. When her band’s lead guitarist passed on touring again (“he wanted to stay home”), Chapman’s first call was to Krekel, who immediately accepted the job. Over the next four months, a deep-rooted platonic love developed between the two artists.

“The first gig we had was in Riverfront in Cincinnati. Then we spent the next four months touring all over the country together on a bus. The funny thing was, not until the end of the tour, did we write anything together. I remember we were doing our laundry and Tim had picked up a Billboard magazine and saw that a song he had written with Matraca Berg had gone to Number One. He was so excited, but so cool and laid-back about it. That’s just the way he is. I said, ‘You know, this tour’s almost over and we’ve never written a song together. We should be shot if we don’t write a song together.’ So he came up to the room, and the first song we wrote together was called ‘Love Slave.’ After that, I started writing a song, and he started to leave the room. He said, ‘This sounds like something you should write yourself.’ Because my only brother was HIV positive and it was his birthday, October 7, and we had just gotten word that he was starting to have some health issues. And I’m thinkin’, Oh, God, this is the beginning of the end. Anyway, I was feeling sad about that and I started writing a song called ‘In The Fullness of Time,’ and Tim was gonna leave. I said, ‘No, come on, jump in.’ Of course he did, and it was wonderful. So we wrote two songs that afternoon, and we wrote on and off from then until he died in June 2009.”

“So many happy memories/I’m told one day they’ll comfort me/until that day comes I’ll keep crying/these old tears/’cause I can’t stop thinking about you…”—Marshall Chapman,  ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,’ from the album Big Lonesome

Krekel’s website still tells the story of the events of Spring and early Summer 2009:
*March 27, 2009: “Tim Is Out Of ICU”
“This morning Tim Krekel was allowed out of bed for the first time since his operation to remove the cancer in his abdomen….”

*March 31, 2009: “Tim Is Home”
Tim Krekel just got home from the hospital and is ready to get some real rest! After almost a whole week in the hospital to remove a cancerous lump in his abdomen Tim Krekel was finally released today. The doctors told him to go home and take it easy…”

*April 27, 2009: “What It Aint”
“Contrary to what was posted in the Courier Journal on Friday, Tim Krekel does not have pancreatic cancer. To be specific he had a tumor removed from his stomach and is expected to make a full recovery. Thanks for everyone’s concern.”

*June 14, 2009: “Tim & Debora Getting Married”
“There will be a SMALL & EXTREMELY PRIVATE ceremony at their home this Sunday, June 14th followed by a large & extremely public wedding and reception for those who know and love the wonderful couple at The Rudyard Kipling at 4 PM.”

*June 24, 2009: “Tim Krekel Is Walking In A State Of Grace”
“Tim Krekek’s health took a drastic turn for the worse these last few weeks. At the final stage of what he described to me as “A most wonderful life!” Tim was able to die at home under the loving care of his family and hospice. Now he is experiencing the most glorious adventure we all will ever face. With the blessing of knowing that death was near, love and last goodbyes were shared. Now Tim is totally a part of the Love he’s told us about throughout his entire life. God Bless Tim Krekel. Pray for those who will be left behind.”

For Marshall Chapman, Krekel’s death came at a point in her life when she had decided she might never record again. “Burned out” and trying “not to write songs,” she concentrated on her songwriters book, on contributing articles to the various magazines she serves as a contributing editor, writing anything but songs. Part of the reasoning behind this was that a novelist friend of hers who had lost a son in sudden, tragic circumstances had told Chapman that putting words on a page helped her cope with the devastation she felt at losing her child. But putting words on a page did not help Chapman—“I had to pick up my guitar.”

“It just seemed like my guitar was the only thing that would comfort me during that time, and the songs just started pouring out,” she recalls. “I would wake up at three o’clock in the morning and out came “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” real simple, country, Harlan Howard kind of song, first line to the last line just like it was perfectly dictated to me from somewhere. Those kind of songs, they just rushed out. After I had written four or five, I knew what I had to do, I knew what I was gonna do. I just knew I was gonna make another record. But I wanted to set it up right, with the people I chose. Tim was the first person I called to go into the studio.”

Marshall Chapman, ‘Going Away Party,’ the Cindy Walker tune, originally recorded by Bob Wills, appears on Chapman’s Big Lonesome album in a western swing arrangement.

Before the sessions started, the Krekel wedding took place. Chapman and her husband were there, having driven up with Matraca Berg and her husband, Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Asked if she was aware how sick Krekel was at that time, she says “people who weren’t in denial were looking at it for what it was. We pulled up to Tim’s house, and Tim walked towards the driveway and Jeff didn’t recognize him. It had gotten that bad. You could see the cancer. He was gaunt and thin but there was this big thing on his stomach, and they had already taken out a basketball-size tumor, and this is three months later, and his stomach already looked like it had another basketball in it, and he couldn’t even zip his pants. How he stood up in the heat and said his vows…he was gone ten days later. I remember I journaled that night and wrote that he looked like a dead man walking.”

“So many happy memories/I’m told one day they’ll comfort me/until that day comes I’ll keep crying/these old tears/’cause I can’t stop thinking about you…”

With Krekel gone, Chapman notes, “dreams were dashed, gigs got cancelled and life went on.”

Indeed. She called producer Mike Utley, and he assembled a group of crack players: guitarist Will Kimbrough, bassist Jim Mayer, drummer Casey Wood, Jim Hoke (steel guitar, sax), Steve Herrman (trumpet), Utley himself on organ. Chapman had never worked with any of these musicians, but accepted that she needed to get out of her comfort zone: “So the fact that I went in with some people I had never played with before, well, sometimes you need to do something that kind of scares you, to make the pearl.”

Make a pearl they did. Big Lonesome brings all of Chapman’s strengths to bear on the proceedings. The songs are tight and evocative, literate and plainspoken all at once, sung with gripping conviction and potent feeling—these are songs that are not merely lived in, they are lived—and the supporting musicians clearly bought into the concept, with Kimbrough once again, as he tends to do, impressing with the depth of emotions he puts into every well-wrought note. The title song, the only recording completed before Krekel’s death, actually features him on guitar and adding genial harmony vocals to the rockabilly-tinged heartbreaker. That it exists at all is something of a miracle.

“‘Big Lonesome’ was an old track that we thought was lost, and a guy found it in his basement in Austin, Texas, on ADAT, and we transferred it. I didn’t even realize Tim’s voice was on it. That was a song we had discussed putting on a duet album. When we got real serious about making this record I said, ‘I need to find that track.’ Everybody thought it was lost. There was some money exchanged. (laughs) It’s funny how that happens.”

chapman 3Mexico figures in a couple of the songs: the eerie “Down to Mexico,” a throbbing, chilling dark night reminiscence of an aborted trip south of the border with a friend who didn’t make it (“for the life of me, I’ll never know/why I’m standing here alone/we were gonna fly down there together”), with Kimbrough’s keening, howling slide work summoning the spirit of the absent voice; and “Mississippi Man In Mexico,” based on the artist’s encounter with an American expatriate who lives on a ranch outside San Miguel, cultivating cacti from all over the world, the story told in a dreamy, ethereal ambiance enhanced by Kimbrough’s Krekel-like slide guitar howls. That trip inspired one of only two covers on the album, a somber, stark reading of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (the other cover is a bluesy shuffle version of Cindy Walker’s rueful breakup song, “Going Away Party,” originally cut by Bob Wills, here with a lovely if lonesome trumpet solo courtesy Steve Herrman).

Everywhere, it seems, Tim Krekel surfaces in some way on Big Lonesome. He is directly evoked in the mournful country strains of “Tim Revisited” and the stark vocal and guitar opening of the following song, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” (“we had it all but now you’re gone/I see your face in every flower that blooms/I can’t stop thinking about you…”) opens up into a steel-tinged lament, hymn-like and direct in its depiction of emotional devastation (“I’m doing all I can to live and carry on/can’t stop thinkin’ about you…”). But Chapman also approaches his passing obliquely and metaphorically at other points, in songs such as “Falling Through the Trees,” a country ballad that opens with the chilling lyric, “What’s that sound/like something falling through the trees/better run girl/before it knocks you to your knees/is it real or just something in your mind/it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.” These lead up to “Tim Revisited,” which is tougher and rawer than what’s come before it, and placed exactly where it should be in the sequence to make a point—an old school point but a valid one nonetheless.

“People say, ‘Well, people put songs in iPods and listen to them individually. Nobody cares about sequencing albums anymore. That’s such an antiquated idea.’ And I thought, I care. Hey, ‘cause that’s how we do it. And that’s how I’ll do it until I die, and I’m 61 years old. Hell, yeah, sequencing is important. I love concept albums, and I loved Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams album, that was my favorite album of his, and it was Waylon’s favorite album too, best album he ever recorded. And of course he ended it with a live cut and that’s where I got the idea. It was going to end with ‘Riding With Willie,’ you know, just riding on down the road. And ten songs? I don’t know, with the economy the way it is I think you need to give your listener, whoever’s buying the CD, more than 40 minutes of music. So we found the live cut and it was like 10 minutes long, I said, ‘Great!’”

The “live cut” she speaks of is the album closing “I Love Everybody,” from a show at Louisville’s Vernon Club on May 30, three weeks prior to Krekel’s death. It was the old friends’ last performance together. It’s a poignant memory that leads directly to the writing of “Tim Revisited.”

“There is a YouTube video of that performance, and you can see that actual recording. When you hear it at the end, after all the solos, Tim plays that lick that just pulls the whole band together to end it—that slide thing he plays. And what’s so amazing is he’s recorded that song that we wrote together, ‘I Love Everybody,’ I’ve recorded it, too, and I had never heard that slide. And I’ve played it with him live on stage—never heard that slide lick. And he couldn’t stand up at that point. He was sittin’ down playin’ better than I had ever heard him. It was almost like, when you’re weakened, you have a fever and you’re sick and you go do a show, lot of times those are the best shows you do, because you don’t have any energy to waste on any kind of bullshit. You get right to the essence of the situation. And that’s what he did in that performance. But that lick, if you look at the YouTube, you’ll when the guy gets through with the trombone solo, he turns around to the sax player and says, ‘Turn up my amp,’ because he couldn’t stand up to go turn up his own amp. I just watch that video over and over again—and that’s the lyric in ‘Tim Revisited,’ about that performance you hear at the end of the record: ‘Cause when Tim turned up his amp and started playing/I swear I heard a far-off angel sing.’”

‘When Tim turned up his amp and started playing/I swear I heard a far-off angel sing’: Marshall Chapman and Tim Krekel (seated) perform ‘I Love Everybody,’ May 30, 2009 at the Vernon Club, Louisville, KY, three weeks prior to Krekel’s death.

As for letting go of Big Lonesome, Chapman says it wasn’t hard to sign off on it. In fact, and in contrast to her previous experience, she not only goes back to listen to it regularly, but keeps it in her car CD player, the only one of six that is never changed.

“Every time I’m out running errands, I turn it on, and it’s like Tim’s in the car with me. It’s so weird,” she says. “I didn’t think about that when I was making the record. I was just thinking I wanted to honor my friend. I didn’t know I would create something that would make me feel like he was with me. Am I getting to cosmic on you?

“The great thing about Tim is that he loved me. I just know that he loved me, and I loved him, and we had a great friendship. I think it’s all over the record. I don’t have to tell you that.”

big lonesome
Marshall Chapman’s Big Lonesome is available at the artist’s website, where all 12 of her albums can be ordered.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024