"(Debora)came over to the house with his ashes, right after his service," recalls Chapman. "We went in the backyard and were just sitting there. And I have a birdbath in the backyard, and I said, ‘I'm gonna sprinkle some in the birdbath.' Right after I did that, some robins came up and took a big drink of water and flew off. And I thought that was so perfect, that they had some of Tim's ashes in their bellies as they were flying across the sky. I like the idea that his ashes were flying."
The year before Krekel's death, Chapman's longtime bassist Jackie Street died from complications from diabetes. With the songs for "Big Lonesome" ready, she was missing the first two people she always called before hitting the studio.
"I called Mike Utley, who I did ‘Love Slave' with, because I love that record and the way it came out," says Chapman. "Mike and I had been in Jimmy Buffett's band together with Tim. I love being in the studio with Mike. I could do it myself, but Mike and I just work so well together."
With the 2003 launch of her own Tall Girl label, Chapman has felt increasingly comfortable following her creative heart. That feeling was never so strong as it was on "Big Lonesome," and with Utley at the helm, she had the green light to roll through one of the best set of songs she's ever written.
"I can play really good rhythm guitar, but it's real noisy; I call it percussive rhythm because it makes a lot of noise," says Chapman. "But I've had producers not want me to play on my own records because of that. Bullshit, you know? I decided after the last album, my guitar was going to be front and center. And it was. You can really hear it on ‘Down to Mexico.' I felt so free making this record."
There's a story to accompany every song on "Big Lonesome" but certainly one of the best and perhaps most moving comes with Tim Revisited. Chapman had just finished writing the song and given its direct influence, wanted Krekel to hear it. Krekel's wife held the phone up to her husband's ear while Chapman ran through the song for her fading friend. Although he was nearing the end of his journey, he still had some input to offer.
"He said, ‘Now, Marshall, when you go to record that, be sure to put some mariachi horns on it,' " says Chapman with a laugh. "Then I said, ‘I love you, Tim,' and he told me he loved me. He slipped into a coma that night, and he was gone three days later."
"Big Lonesome" is inhabited by more than just Krekel's infectious creative spirit. Krekel's son, Jason, provides vocals on Sick of Myself, a song that Chapman co-wrote with Krekel and had wanted him to sing on it. And the album's closing track, I Love Everybody, is actually a live recording of the last time Chapman and Krekel appeared on stage together, at the Dance or Die festival, held annually at the Vernon, a music club/bowling alley in Krekel's hometown of Louisville, Ky., weeks before he passed away.
There was a version of the song that they had done at a Belgian music festival, but it wasn't a multi-track recording. Chapman was determined to include the song anyway, but Debbie Cooper informed her that a multi-track tape from the Vernon existed, she got ahold of the tape, and it serves as a fitting end for the album.
Chapman shed many tears during the making of "Big Lonesome" and any number of subsequent live appearances, anytime she's had to confront the gaping hole in her personal life and professional career left in the wake of Tim Krekel's passing.
"There were a lot of strong emotions," says Chapman. "We listened to the playback when we finished tracking Tim Revisited, and I just started weeping, in front of Mike and Will Kimbrough and these people I didn't even know that well. I lost it at the Americana Music Association Convention. My big event was talking about my book and Jay Orr from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was interviewing me, and I started telling the story of the e-mails and quoting the lyrics from the e-mail that Tim sent me back that ended up being the last verse of Sick of Myself. I started talking about friendship, and I broke down and just sobbed. There were all these Americana DJs in the audience and all these people that you want to think you're cool. It freaked Jay out, but talked to him later and told him, ‘I've had too much therapy to be afraid of my tears.' I came from a family where anger didn't exist for a Southern lady, which is why all those women are so pissed. I call it the angry eyes behind that frozen smile. Nothing scares me more than that. Rush Limbaugh doesn't scare me like that."
Although Chapman's grief over losing Krekel can still well up in her at unexpected times, writing the songs on "Big Lonesome" was perhaps the best therapy of all.
"When my father died, I cried, and I thought that was it, and it wasn't until I found myself in a treatment center five years later, depressed as hell," says Chapman. "Depression, a lot of times, is just anger turned inward. I always thought my anger would be toward my mother, and it was all towards my father, namely because he had died. Emotions are just wild; we're still in the cave as far as emotions. That's why I love what I do, being a songwriter, because that's what we're tapping into. Technology can change and all that, but there's never going to be anything invented that can write a song."