Anne Cleveland is on a mission. As director of the Charleston Library Society, she’s dusting off the mustiness and high-brow patina that may have attached itself over the years to the “oldest cultural institution in the South” with its esteemed 274 year history. Witness the 2012 Piccolo Literary Festival, arranged and hosted by the Library Society, which pretty much blows any remaining stiff library stereotypes out of the water.
Sure, there were a few heady lectures in the six program line-up (who says intelligence can’t be hip?) but the Literary Festival finale on Saturday afternoon brought the eight-program offering to a rousing and rockin’ close. With Marshall Chapman’s guitar amp plugged in and her hilarious and heartfelt readings and storytelling about “The Triumph of Rock and Roll over Good Breeding,” there was little room for typical library hush-hushness.
I first came to know Marshall Chapman when I lived in Nashville and waited tables on Music Row, circa 1987-89. You couldn’t not know who Chapman was on the music scene back then: a tall, lanky gal with wiry white-blonde hair, an equally tall-drink-of-water southern accent, and a mean guitar lick. Chapman had been a debutante from an upstanding family in Spartanburg, landed in Nashville as a Vandy undergrad, got a quick education in gritty Nashville honky-tonkin, fell under Music City’s sway, and before long had a decidedly undebutante band called Jaded Virgin.
Chapman not only wrote the song, “Rode Hard and Put up Wet,” she’s lived it, and boy, can she swirl a story around the convoluted riffs of growing up as a privileged white girl in small town Jim Crow South and mixing it up with music legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt, Jessi Colter, Kris Kristofferson, EmmyLou Harris, and Jimmy Buffet, to name a few. As Chapman read segments of her memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (St. Martin's Press, 2003), the audience laughed and nodded knowingly, the too-true southern vignettes familiar to many.
Her performance on Saturday was in large part an homage to her Spartanburg and Enoree, South Carolina, roots, and to her “best friend in music,” Tim Krekel, who died in 2009 after a quick three-month bout with cancer and inspired Chapman’s latest album, "Big Lonesome." While the songs were tender, including her version of the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Chapman’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get delivery was riveting. She has a transparency that draws you in, as if you feel the steel strings tight against your fingers and the lyrics catch in your throat.
“Listen to these next four lines, yawl,” she paused and said midway through Williams’ tune, “The best four lines in country music. I’ll put them up against any poet anywhere,” and then she belted out, in pitch-perfect twang: “The silence of a falling star / lights up the purple sky / and as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
Kudos to Anne Cleveland and the Library Society for showing Charleston and Piccolo that Charleston’s literary scene rocks. And to Marshall Chapman, come on back anytime, ya hear?