Liner Notes for

"Notes From Home"

By Jon Weisberger

 

Don't think of The Chapmans as a family bluegrass band; think of them as a bluegrass band whose members belong to the same family. The reason? As producer Ray Deaton puts it, "with a family band, a lot of times there’ll be one musician who really stands out; with these guys, it’s like each musician in the band was hand-picked," and one listen to Notes From Home should be enough to prove the point; family they may be, but the Missouri-based band takes a back seat to no one when it comes to doing bluegrass just the way it should be done – with drive, imagination, skill and feeling.

 

For their Pinecastle debut, Bill, John, Jeremy and Jason Chapman have pulled out all the stops, enlisting Ray, resonator guitarist Rob Ickes and fiddler Aubrey Haynie to produce an album that easily shows why the band won 1998’s International Bluegrass Band Competition at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s annual Nashville shindig. Everything is in place here, from winning material to crisp, clean picking to powerful harmonies and vocal arrangements, and The Chapmans present it with a confidence and maturity that belie the youth and diffidence of most of the band’s members. All of the band’s strengths are on display from the first cut – solid timing, spare and tasteful backup, a beautifully blended trio, fresh, concise solos and soulful lead singing by the oldest son, John.

 

Blessed with a husky voice both sweet and powerful, John started out as a fiddler – winning a Colorado Junior State Fiddle Championship in the late 1980s while still in his early teens – before switching over to the guitar; "Dad wasn’t too happy about that at first," he says, "but that’s what I wanted to do." The only one of the younger generation to attend public high school (he began home schooling after his freshman year, and his brothers followed suit), he has first-hand knowledge of the changing view of bluegrass among his peers. "We played some shows at my school, and that was real tough – but it was funny, too," he says. "The kids at school didn’t care for it when it was being played, but I was amazed at how many people would come up to me at later times and say ‘boy, I really liked that stuff you guys were doing – but don’t you tell anybody else.’ But bluegrass is getting less of a stigma with young people, especially recently."

 

Jeremy, 20, takes his own turn as lead singer on Ray Edenton’s "You’re Running Wild" (popularized by the Louvin Brothers) and Moon Mullican’s "Lonesome Hearted Blues" (learned, Jeremy says, from "an old Dusty Miller album"), two country music classics whose positions as centerpieces of Notes From Home manifest and repay the debt the band owes to earlier generations of country and bluegrass artists. No less important, of course, is his contribution as a mandolin player; in The Chapmans’ regular four-piece lineup that’s an especially big job, but here he fits in nicely – and holds his own – too with Haynie and Ickes, no easy job given the stature of these guests. Jeremy’s opening statement of "Panhandle Rag" is one of the most lovely and graceful yet recorded, and his tasteful chording behind John’s guitar solo shows that he’s listened more widely and deeply than some musicians two or three times his age.

 

As the youngest of the brothers, Jason is the most recent to turn to music full-time – in fact, he says that while the others get to take in the sights as they travel around the country, he’s left behind to keep up with his homework. Nevertheless, he’s been singing with the group for a long time, and his bass playing is a big part of The Chapmans’ mastery of mid-tempo material; another serious student of his instrument, he listens "to a lot of stuff, not just bluegrass – Victor Wooten, Blues Traveler, country music," though he’s wise enough to add that "I try, though, to just play bluegrass when I’m playing with the band."

 

Being the father of three such talented sons, one might think that Bill Chapman was a musician who brought them up in the business, and one might also suspect that his presence onstage has as much to do with keeping an eye on the boys as with his banjo playing – but in both cases, it would be a big mistake to do so. "It kind of fell into place, I guess," he says. "We all started about the same time. When the kids were little we went to our first festivals, and just kind of played around with it at the house. I think going to jam sessions and wanting to be part of them was a big part for the kids, and John started learning the fiddle, took Suzuki lessons, and eventually got serious. He even started going to contests, and that prompted us a little bit. I had a banjo – I had bought one some time before but never really did anything with it – and because I already had it was a good enough reason for me to make that my instrument" – and make it his own he has.

 

That’s an unusual story, and it’s part of what make The Chapmans unusual among family bands, where the motivation for a career often precedes the music rather than following it. What makes The Chapmans an unusual band, plain and simple, is their musicianship; every cut here is evidence of an all-too-rare ability to be flexible, borrowing freely from different sources without losing identity. There’s never any doubt on Notes From Home as to who the band is, whether they’re offering the pure country sentiment of Lefty Frizzell’s "Mom And Dad’s Waltz," the hard-edged bluegrass classic "Out In The Cold World," the sobering story of "Out Among The Stars" (given a special solemnity by the youth of the singer) or the smooth sophistication of a contemporary country song like Vince Gill and Guy Clark’s "Jenny Dreams Of Trains." "We changed a lot of the songs quite a bit from how the original versions were done," producer Deaton says. "We wanted to make it The Chapmans – you know, when it comes on you know that’s them," and in this respect, as in others, Notes From Home is eminently successful.

 

Though Ray helped to shape the arrangements and brought the band the title song, most of the responsibility for the outstanding selection of material here goes to The Chapmans themselves. "We only had a few weeks before we went in the studio when I came on board," Deaton says. "I didn’t have time to come up with much material at all, but they had a lot that they had gathered up over the years." "I’m really into story songs," John adds, "and you can really get the stories out in some of these slow songs. We have a big thing for those; I had about four or five more I wanted to do really bad, but we had to decide which we wanted to do the most. That was kind of tough." Selecting the songs may have been difficult, but the actual recording wasn’t. Ray recalls that "it was a joy to work with those guys. It’s not every time that you go into the studio at 10 o’clock in the morning and get out around midnight and you feel like you’ve been in there two hours. The day went by so fast because it was so fun."

 

The result belies the notion that making great art necessarily involves suffering, just as it gives reason to be cautious before assigning The Chapmans to a "family band" track with all that suggests; Notes From Home is an album that will surely be considered one of the strongest national label debuts in years. From the opening drive of "You Can Run But You Can’t Hide," with its gliding fiddle and loping rhythm to the closing trio on "Fool’s Castle," this is a collection of songs given life by strong, true talent. There’s no need to forget that The Chapmans are family, but they’re much more. Separately, each member stands on his own as a skilled, sensitive musician; together, they’re just plain unbeatable. Nothing more need be said.
- Jon Weisberger, May, 1999

 

 

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