Folk singer talks about her new album, religion and ‘Hee Haw’
By Patrick MacDonald, The Seattle Times Company, Friday, April 21, 2000
Tracy Chapman was inspired by . . . “Hee Haw”!
Yep. The distinguished folk singer, known for her left-leaning political songs and heartfelt emotional ballads, took some of her earliest musical inspiration from the corny country-music TV staple of the 1970s.
“I actually think that one of the reasons I wanted to play acoustic guitar is because my mother used to watch ‘Hee Haw’ when I was younger,” Chapman said from a tour stop.
“I liked the music and I also thought the guitars were beautiful. I remember the ones Buck Owens used to play. They were so ornate. And I loved their sound. I actually don’t like guitars like that for myself, but that was one thing, as a child, I found interesting – that they were so beautiful. ”
“My mother actually listens to some country music. I listen to country music. I don’t think it’s a big influence on me but I do like it. I like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, stuff like that. And Willie Nelson. He’s a great songwriter.”
Chapman’s latest album, Telling Stories, features a guest appearance by country star Emmylou Harris.
“Oh, I love her so much,” Chapman responded at the mention of Harris’ name. “She’s fabulous. It was so fun working with her. We had such a good time.”
Telling Stories has more of a band feeling than Chapman’s three previous albums. Although she accompanies herself on guitar on some songs, most of them have band arrangements.
“That’s interesting you would say that (the album has a band feeling),” Chapman responded, “because Denny Fongheiser played drums on my first two albums, and was on my last tour cycle, and same for Larry Klein, the bassist. So we had a rhythm section going, and then the other musicians sort of responded to that, so, yeah, it felt like being in a band. And some of the same guys are in my great (four-piece) touring band.”
The title of the album is a clue to the music. Even though many of the songs sound personal, they’re actually stories, not confessions.
“For the most part, the songs I write are not autobiographical,” Chapman explained. “I may have experienced something related to what the song is about, or in some way feel that I have an understanding of the feeling or the thought behind it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it was my own experience.”
The album has more of a spiritual component than her earlier ones. Words like “sacred,” “holy,” “angels” and “psalms” crop up in the lyrics, and some of the songs deal in the Big Questions of life and death.
“I don’t consider myself a religious person,” Chapman said. “My grandfather was a minister. I actually didn’t know him; he died before I was born. My parents sent my sister and me to Sunday school at a Baptist church but we weren’t really forced to go beyond our early years. And then I went to an Episcopalian high school (the prestigious Wooster School in Connecticut). I find religion interesting. I don’t belong to any particular religious domination. But they deal with the Big Questions, like you say, so it’s of interest to me.”
Chapman said she is following the presidential race – “This election year seems like it’s really long; the process is dragging” – but won’t endorse a candidate. “I encourage people to register and vote. Rock the Vote has booths at some of our concerts where people can actually register.”
As she tours, she said, she’s noticed many building projects in major cities, alongside the usual pockets of poverty.
“It seems like the economic prosperity has reached some people,” she said, “but it seems like the people who are on the fringes are still on the fringes and they’re not really experiencing any of the benefits of the booming economy. More and more people are on the street. I still see the signs of poverty.“