Beyond Words
(from May 2011 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine)
By Marshall Chapman

Every now and then, I ask myself: Why do I continue to call Nashville home? In this day and age of Internet and satellite radio, a singer-songwriter like myself could live anywhere, right? Am I going to put up with the pollen, humidity, traffic, mosquitos, chiggers, and increasingly unpredictable weather (i.e., tornadoes) until my dying day? Then something magical happens, and my contract with the city gets renewed. It’s then I realize it’s the people that keep me rooted in Music City.

For example, last week I attended Cowboy Jack Clement’s 80th birthday party at his “Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa” (home) on Belmont Boulevard. I’d awakened that morning exhausted from the road, staring at a couple of writing deadlines. But something made me get up and shower and drive over to the party, which began at noon.

Cowboy and I go way back. He was the first person I ever met in the music business, back when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt. He’s a legend in music circles worldwide, having been at the controls at Sun Records, when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Cowboy also sang at my wedding, but that’s a whole ’nother story.

I arrive at the party with a hastily wrapped gift and a birthday card that depicts the Dalai Lama opening a present that’s an empty box. The caption reads, “Oh, Goodie! Just what I’ve always wanted — nothing!”

The party has everything a party should have — good food, good music, and lots of old friends that haven’t seen each other in a while. After helping myself to a plate of barbecue and coleslaw, I sit down between Cowboy and Kitty Forbes, who’d driven up from Chattanooga that morning with husband Walter. Kitty and I discuss the barbecue sauce, which is unlike any we have ever tasted. Light colored with a Béarnaise texture, it is so good, it puts us in a state of rapture, and, before either of us knows what’s happening, we’re singing “The Nearness of You” a cappella. When Cowboy joins in, he begins pluralizing the lyrics, so “The Nearness of You” becomes “The Nearness of Y’all.” I envision Hoagy Carmichael spinning in his grave.

About that time, Jim Rooney, Pat McLaughlin, Shawn Camp, and a man I’d never seen before wearing a black cowboy hat break out their guitars and begin singing. Accompanying them are Ronnie McCrory on mandolin, David Ferguson on upright bass, and Kenny Malone playing a cool-looking conga drum equipped with a snare. The subtle, deep sounds Malone coaxes from the drum resonate within my solar plexus. The overall sound of the music is so tight and sweet and good, it permeates the soul.

I’d only meant to stay at the party fifteen minutes or so. But then I end up staying two and a half hours. Finally, as I tear myself away, I walk toward the front door, where I run into John Prine who’s just arrived. I want to turn around, but I’m done.