“All songs are already perfectly written. It is the writer’s job to find it and get it on paper.”
A great quote on songwriting from a writer who has done more than her fair share of finding some perfect songs. Beth Nielsen Chapman is a two-time Grammy Award and ACM Award nominee and won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year in 1999 for co-writing Faith Hill’s ‘This Kiss’. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. She has written songs for both country and pop performers and her songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Ute Lemper, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Elton John, Bette Midler and many, many more.
Born in Harlingen, Texas, in 1958. Her father was a high ranking officer in the American Air Force and the family moved frequently as he was posted to various locations. It was while living in Germany, aged 11, that she learned to play guitar and piano, influenced by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, James Taylor, and Carole King. When the family finally settled back in the U.S. it was in Montgomery, Alabama in 1969; right in the heart of the Civil Rights conflict that raged in America at that time. For a newly emerging songwriter this was an exciting, if difficult time, with the Vietnam War also at its height. The human condition and the struggle to overcome adversity would become central themes of Beth’s writing, “With the Vietnam war blazing, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death still fresh in the news, and my heart reeling from the shock of a school trip to Dachau, the bubble of my childhood’s view of the world burst and I started to sense the existential depth of human suffering for the first time”.
In 1976 she joined local pop/rock group, Harmony, replacing Tommy Shaw who left to join Styx. Just three years later she married and moved to Mobile, Alabama and her debut solo album, “Hearing it First” was recorded at Muscle Shoals and released in 1980, just in time for her to find herself sidelined by the disco boom! She took time off from the music business to give birth to a son, Ernest Chapman III, and then, in 1985, the family moved to Nashville, which is where her career as a songwriter really started to take off. In 1990 she wrote number 1 country hits for Willie Nelson (‘Nothing I Can Do About it Now’) and Tanya Tucker (‘Strong Enough to Bend’) and was signed by Warner/Reprise, who mainly pitched her at the Adult Contemporary market, where she had reasonable success, not least in the U.K. Just as her career was taking a considerable upward turn, with her second solo album, “You Hold The Key”, about to be released in 1993, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and died within the year. In 1997 she released “Sand and Water”, an album dealing with coming to terms with loss and with a title track that was adopted by Elton John to replace ‘Candle in the Wind’ in his set for his 1997 U.S. tour. Three years later Chapman would receive her own cancer diagnosis and would spend the next two years being treated for, and recovering from, breast cancer.
Her experiences through this difficult period seemed to give her writing new depth and she has, increasingly, become a writer who encourages health awareness and the importance of addressing grief and loss but also the importance of acknowledging recovery and focusing on positivity. It’s something she knows a little about, having also had to recover from the removal of a benign brain tumor and, just last year, the death of her second husband, this time to leukemia. In 2016 she joined with Canadian artist, Amy Sky, and long time friend Olivia Newton-John, for the “LIV ON” project – an album and tour specifically based on the power of music to heal and help people to move forward with their lives.
Beth Nielsen Chapman continues to write across a wide range of musical styles and it’s an indication of how adaptable her material is that it has been used in a host of films and TV programmes. Film soundtracks that have featured her songs include ‘The Prince of Egypt’, ‘Message In A Bottle’, ‘The Rookie’, ‘Where The Heart Is’ and ‘Practical Magic’ and TV series have included ‘E.R’, ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘Days of Our Lives’, among others. In addition to her own writing, she also teaches songwriting and runs creative workshops. She has released no less than sixteen albums, in her own name, over the years, starting with that debut album in 1980 and coming up to her most recent release, 2022’s “Crazy Town”.
Beth Nielsen Chapman is, clearly, an incredibly talented songwriter but, more than that, she’s a writer who has channeled her own tragedies and experiences into encouraging creativity in others and helping people address their own lives through the positivity of creating songs. This is the sort of thing good songwriters do, and Beth Nielsen Chapman is one of the best.