Her decision to forego her recording career and concentrate on her roles as a songwriter and an author (her new book, "They Came From Nashville," was also out at the end of October; both are available on her web site at www.tallgirl.com) would be swayed by just one variable; the possibility of doing a duet album with her longtime writing and performing collaborator Tim Krekel.
"I thought if I do another album, I'll do a duet with Tim because we can combine our resources, and it'll be fun because he's the first person I want to be on stage with anyway," says Chapman, 61, from her Nashville home. "He's somebody I really like to write with, and I just like to hang out with him. He's the first person you want to call to be on your bus."
Within weeks of Chapman's decision, fate intervened in tragic fashion. Krekel was diagnosed with cancer in March 2009; he was gone in an astonishingly short three months. And then something amazing happened.
"The songs started coming, and I couldn't stop them," says Chapman, who has released a dozen albums since 1977. "I had been telling people that I don't chase it any more, writing songs. I'm writing my book, I'm a columnist for a couple of magazines, and I'm writing prose. I know how to put the lid on songwriting; you just don't write a song. But when Tim died, I couldn't not write the songs; I would wake up in the middle of the night, and they were just coming. And they were coming out perfectly, from the first line to the end, like someone was dictating them to me."
The first time Chapman met Krekel is lost to history, although she does remember seeing him for the first time, as he had recruited her rhythm section from her 1978 "Jaded Virgin" album to be in his band, the Sluggers. Her first time working with Krekel came when they found themselves in Jimmy Buffett's backing band in 1987 on his Last Mango in Paris tour; Chapman had co-written some songs for the album, and Buffett offered her a spot in the band.
"It was a lot of fun," says Chapman. "Jimmy had figured out when you've got your own airplane, you can hub out. You check into a hotel in Chicago and fly down and do Columbus or over to Detroit. So, we only stayed in about five cities, and we had a lot of down time because Jimmy didn't play more than two nights in a row. Tim sort of became my band buddy. We would go to museums or go to a movie together."
Eight years later, Chapman recorded a live album at the Tennessee State Prison for Women. Buffett got wind of it and made it the first release on his Margaritaville imprint, offering her the opening slot for his whole summer tour. Her guitarist at the time didn't want to be away from home for that long, so Chapman called Krekel.
"I didn't know him that well, and he said, ‘Yeah, I'll come do it,'" recalls Chapman. "I was stunned. Of course, Tim had played a lot with Jimmy, so it would be great, being in the family and everything. We spent a whole summer on a tour bus together. Jimmy had given us enough of a budget to have a tour bus. I said, ‘Jimmy, I'm too old to follow you around America in a van.' It was ridiculous fun."
The Buffett tour ended in Laguna Beach, Cal., and that was where Chapman and Krekel wrote their first songs together. Their first collaboration was the R&B workout Love Slave, the second (In the Fullness of Time) was inspired by Chapman's brother, who had just been diagnosed with AIDS.
At first, Krekel thought Chapman should work on it herself, given the heavy connection, but she insisted he stay and continue working.
"It was a good collaboration, and after that, he became my favorite person to write songs with, right up until he died," she says. "He was the one."
In actuality, Chapman's decision to walk away from recording coupled with her natural grief over Krekel's passing should have made "Big Lonesome" a difficult, if not impossible album to make. And yet, from writing to recording to taking the songs out on the road, "Big Lonesome" may well be Chapman's most effortless album to date.
"It was almost like I didn't have any choice," says Chapman with a wry smile in her voice. "All I did was shower and show up. It was like larger forces were at play. The songs were coming from a deeper place, and I knew what I had to do, maybe not on a conscious level, but I just knew I was going to make a great record. It's not fair to compare albums, so let me just say, this album is real special."
Still in all, the process of making "Big Lonesome" was emotional from beginning to end. Krekel's widow, Debora Cooper, gave Chapman some of her husband's ashes after his memorial service, and she kept Krekel's ashes in the studio during the recording of the album. Well, most of them.