I’ve been listening to Michael Chapman’s new album, 50, lately. It’s pretty much, with the exception of The Hired Hands – a various artists tribute to Bruce Langhorne, the only new music I’ve sought out this year so far. And that’s okay, because 50 is one of Chapman’s best works in his long career. A 50 year career, to be precise (hence the album title). Sometimes I just replay the first cut, “A Spanish Incident”, because it’s so good.
Lyrically, not much happens besides Chapman and someone named Ramon (his driver and/or a friend) having car trouble in the desert near Durango, Mexico (unless he’s referring to Durango, Colorado, but probably not). It’s the way the story is told, in a conversational style via Chapman’s gruff but warm natural storytelling voice, combined with the rolling guitars and drums, that elevate the song above the ordinary.
“In the mountains out near Durango / I’m catchin’ flies just for something to do / ‘Cause I’m stuck on this road, I’m goin’ nowhere / And I’m still only halfway to you / Ramon says we don’t have a problem / But Ramon he keeps telling me lies” Feeling like an old folk tale, and kind of like a classic Grateful Dead or New Riders of the Purple Sage tune in some ways, “A Spanish Incident” benefits from the fleshed out instrumentation provided by album producer Steve Gunn’s additional guitar (Gunn did a mini-tribute to Chapman in last year’s video for his “Ancient Jules“, a song similar in spirit), Nathan Bowles on banjo, and Bridgett St. John on backing vocals, plus the simpatico drums and bass. With the whole thing firmly anchored by Chapman’s own well-weathered and time-tested acoustic playing.
Some artists burn out artistically when they’re young and some just keep getting better. Lucky for us, Chapman falls into the later camp.
(Here’s a nice little feature from Bandcamp with some more album cuts.)