Beth Nielsen Chapman Connects With Emmylou Harris

After recording one of Chapman's songs, singer will join songwriter in studio, following John Hiatt, John Prine.

Star power's nothing new to songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman.

Elton John chose her "Sand and Water" to sing at his concerts in memory of Princess Diana and Gianni Versace, and she's penned hits for Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood and others.

But right now Chapman is most excited by the fact that Emmylou Harris recorded one of her songs for the Ashley Judd–Natalie Portman movie, "Where the Heart Is."

"I am so thrilled to have had the cover of 'Beyond the Blue' (RealAudio excerpt) by Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin," Chapman said recently. "I have been following Emmy around for years trying to foist a song on her. She's just one of my favorite singers — and Patty's voice on there is stunning."

Harris also will lend her support on Chapman's next album, the follow-up to 1997's critically acclaimed Sand and Water. She'll join an already stellar cast, as Bill Miller, John Hiatt and John Prine have already participated in the project, which is tentatively scheduled for a fall release.

Many Influences

Chapman taught herself how to play guitar as a teenager and grew up listening to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

"Folk is the root of what I do," she said. When her family moved to Alabama she added bluegrass to her influences.

"I soaked up a lot of styles," she said, "and bluegrass was definitely one of them. I've had a lot of success in country music — 'Strong Enough To Bend,' that Tanya Tucker recorded, is an example — with songs that to me are technically, legalistically, bluegrass."

After several years of working the crawfish circuit along the Gulf Coast, Chapman moved to Nashville. "Although it's associated with country music, Nashville's really a melting pot, there's so much music going on, so many styles," she said.

Chapman finds it funny that when she goes out with a bassist and plays piano, she's considered a pop performer, but she's thought of as a folk artist when she performs solo with just her guitar.

"Then, too, I have three names and I live in Nashville, so I must be country," she said, laughing. "Could I possibly confuse people more? I'm the worst one for categories.

"I think they should just put all the records in a store in alphabetical order and not say you can't use some instrument or some rhythm in a particular style."

Chapman has released two albums with Warner Progressive, her self-titled debut in 1990 and its follow-up, You Hold the Key, in 1993.

They produced several top-10 AC and NAC hits, including "All I Have" and "You Hold the Key" (RealAudio excerpt).

Emotional Range

But just as that second album was being released, Chapman and her husband learned that he had a rare form of cancer and was told he had six months to live.

"My whole life went upside down," Chapman said. Ernest Chapman lived for another 18 months, during which his wife stayed by his side and worked on making sense of her world by writing the songs that would eventually become Sand and Water (RealAudio excerpt of title track).

"It was like going into the gray, you know," Chapman said of her husband's death.

"I must say that it cracked me open in a way. ... There have been incredible gifts. Ernest said, 'These songs you've written are so beautiful, you're going to have an incredible record.' I said, 'I can't promise you that, I'm just doing this to get through this part of my life, you know.' "

At the urging of Rodney Crowell, who produced the project, Chapman eventually put the songs on record and was amazed by the response.

"I didn't see myself only as a person who was grieving — never have — and I was writing all kinds of other songs while I was writing those," she said.

"That collection happens to focus around that certain experience, that certain time in my life. Any time something I write affects someone in a deep way, it's a great compliment."