It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Rock n’ roller Marshall Chapman, once known as the “female Mick Jagger,” will be just shy of her 69th birthday when she brings those lyrics and her life story to Beaufort Friday.
Chapman will sing, and best-selling authors Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle will add their literary gifts in a show that is a celebration of Southern women, and the Pat Conroy Literary Center, at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts.
“Survival is easy
It’s the living that’s hard
And it takes lots of courage
Just to be who you are.”
Chapman has stuffed a lot of courage into her 6-foot frame with Farrah Fawcett hair that once literally caught fire in a life lived so hard that the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, warned her, “Don’t you burn out, hon.”
In 13 albums and a book, “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,” Chapman distills experiences girls born with silver spoons in their mouths to textile magnates in Spartanburg, South Carolina, aren’t supposed to do in life, much less tell out loud.
“Oh, I’ve burned out many times,” she told me. “But like the phoenix, I keep rising.”
Any advice for the rest of us?
“Yeah. Hold on tight to those dreams.”
Chapman’s dream was stamped with a blue suede shoe on Thursday, Feb. 9, 1956. Elvis Presley played four shows that day at the Carolina Theatre in Spartanburg, and 7-year-old “Maah-shul” witnessed the shrieking explosion that was changing the world from the “colored balcony” with one of her family’s maids, Cora Jeter.
Back at home, Big Joe Turner came over the radio as another maid, Lula Mae Moore, ironed in the basement, and little Marshall hung out down there, mimicking the music until Lula Mae told her she had what it takes.
What it takes took her to Nashville, and tours with Jimmy Buffett, and hit songs covered by Sawyer Brown and Emmylou Harris and Joe Cocker, and a tour on Willie Nelson’s bus, and a show with her band called The Love Slaves at the Tennessee State Prison for Women.
It took her through 40 days at a treatment center in the Arizona desert, and AA, and yoga, and so many boyfriends she labeled a couple of them “SFB#1” and “SFB#2” for “Speed Freak Boyfriend.” She took one home to meet her parents and he stayed in the shower the whole visit. She brought one to Hilton Head Island to meet her sister, Mary Chapman Webster. When Mary’s husband, Long Cove Club co-developer Joe Webster, got up before dawn to go duck hunting, SFB#2 was in the yard digging up their cable line.
It even took her to temporary estrangement from her mother, the late Martha Chapman, a matron of the arts who was a force of nature in her own right.
“After life had seasoned us both, we came around,” Chapman said. “That’s one of the things I love about getting older — things have time to come full circle.”
Good Ol’ Girls
The circle to Friday’s show in Beaufort started with a musical.
“Good Ol’ Girls” — called “a feminist literary country music revue” by The New York Times when it opened off-Broadway — was created by Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Chapman, along with songwriter Matraca Berg and director Paul Ferguson.
“It’s not a linear show with a plot, it’s kind of like a chorus line where we alternate between reading and telling stories and Marshall singing songs,” Smith said.
The musical covers a woman’s life from childhood to the nursing home.
“It’s kind of the portrait of a certain person like Norma Rae or Dolly Parton,” said Smith. “Kind of country, kind of funky. One who will tell the truth at all costs. It’s celebrating and supporting tough, working, Southern women of all races. It’s about all women, but Southern women is what we know.”
She adds: “And we like men. We like men a lot.”
Then she giggles. “It’s been one of our downfalls.”
The musical is still out there, being performed all over. And the show the women will do here is another episode in decades of friendship and support through love, divorce, death, the whole thing. Writing novels and songs has sustained them. “Life is long,” Smith said. “You go through a lot of hard times and good times.”
They do the show for causes they support, like the Pat Conroy Literary Center as the legacy of their friend Pat Conroy and his widow, Cassandra King.
As the “little rock and roller” heads into Beaufort, I asked her what’s the goal, what’s the message of the show.
“No goal,” she said. “No message. We just shower and show up. Then see what happens. And something always happens.”
Marshall Chapman claims to be slowing down, but others disagree.
“The guitar I play these days is a Takamine, which is an acoustic guitar that plugs in,” she said. “So yes, my guitar is acoustic, but I’m still electric.”
In 2007, she performed at the opening of the $47.5 million Chapman Cultural Center in downtown Spartanburg, named for her family after multiple generations of support for the arts.
Marshall Chapman is not the only artist in her immediate family. Her sister, Dorothy Josey of Spartanburg, is a painter who for years was deputy art director for TIME magazine cover art.
Marshall plays with a full band once a year at a Parrot Head festival on the beach at Key West, Fla.
And through it all, Lula Mae Moore is still there to tell her she’s got what it takes.
“When my mother died in October 2014, my sisters organized the memorial service at the First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg,” Chapman said, launching another of her non-stop stories. “They had me sing my song ‘Happy Childhood’ as part of the service.
“So when the family was gathering in the narthex before the service, Lula showed up at the last minute, dressed to the nines. Black dress, black wide-brimmed hat ... with gold lamé high heels. Chris and I were going through a divorce, so I was pretty raw emotionally. So I may not have had my husband to hold my hand during the procession, but I had Lula, and how great is that?
“Anyway, so Lula ended up sitting in the first pew with me and my family. When we got down there, she tried to slide down to the end of the pew like black folks used to do, but I wouldn’t let her.
“ ‘You’re sitting here with me,’ I said. So she did. And when I was up there on the chancel singing, there was a moment when I forgot the lyrics in the second verse to ‘Happy Childhood.’ A deadly silence. Then Lula yells out, ‘YOU CAN DO IT, MARSHALL!!’
“I mean, nobody has ever yelled anything in the First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg. The Frozen Chosen, that’s what we call Presbyterians in my hometown. So when Lula yelled that out, the place just came alive. And then I remembered the words. And when it was over, people applauded, which is another thing Presbyterians aren’t supposed to do.”
It’s never too late to come full circle.
David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale
If you go
An Evening of Stories & Songs with Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Marshall Chapman
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15.
Where: University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, 805 Carteret St., Beaufort.
Admission: Regular admission, $45; preferred seating, $75 (and includes a private reception with the performers at the Pat Conroy Literary Center after the show). Tickets are on sale through the USCB Center for the Arts box office: 843-521-4145; www.uscbcenterforthearts.com.
Presenter: Pat Conroy Literary Center.
Sponsors: Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation and the Anchorage 1770 Inn.