For the Chapman Family, Life is Like a Mountain Highway

For the Chapman Family, Life is Like a Mountain Highway

Herb Chapman felt the emptiness of overactive nerves in the pit of his stomach. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadowy wings and onto the brightly lit stage of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. The intensity of the beaming rows of lights hanging from the ceiling cloaked him in a blazing glow. His eyes began to adjust, and the expanse of the audience slowly grew within his sight. The roar of applause from the sold-out crowd soared as he cautiously made his way to the microphone.


He glanced over and saw his two sons, Herbie and Stevie, smiling reassuringly at him. The grandeur of the Opry slowly melted away, and Herb was immediately transported to the days when the three of them gathered around the kitchen table in their Paducah home to do what they do best: make music. It had always been that way for the father and sons. Their lives were given to create music together. Herb smiled. He was no longer on stage . . . he was at “home.”


Herb is no stranger to performing, but that didn't make taking the stage at the Opry any easier. "I guess I was pretty uptight about it," he laughs, "but the kids took the pressure off me. I'm standing there, and I look over and see my sons, and it got easy." The moment was always meant to be. Herbie and Stevie, better known to the rest of the world as Herb Chapman, Jr. and Steven Curtis Chapman, share a profound bond with their dad; a bond deeply rooted in family and music.


The musical ties started with Herb Sr.'s mother and a ukulele from Hawaii. "When I was a little kid, some friends of mine had gotten a couple of ukulele's from Hawaii. I'd go over to see them and played around with the ukuleles quite a bit. Eventually their parents sent one of them home with me cause I enjoyed it, and they said their kids would never really do anything with them.


"My mother was a great musician, and she started to show me some things. I learned to play My Dog Has Fleas, Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, and Shine On Harvest Moon. She showed me how to sing harmonies and taught me along with my friend Jack Martin. She'd enter us into just about every talent show there was! We sang on the radio for the Paducah Opry, and she even went over to Brookport and bought us ten gallon hats as part of our costumes. They were adult hats, so they sat way down on our head! I'm sure we looked silly, but we had a lot of fun!"


Herb, Sr. also had a fondness for emerging musicians in the mid-1950s such as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and his musical style reflected the changing tides in popular music. During his last two years of high school, Herb lived in Eastern Kentucky with his uncle where he hosted his own radio show. After returning to Paducah, he became part of the Village Singers, a popular local group that played regularly on WPSD and at many other local venues. The group produced several albums and toured together. Some of Steve and Herb, Jr.'s earliest memories come from watching their dad perform at Kentucky Lake.


"We took the boys with us everywhere," says Herb. "I was teaching them to play, and before long, they were performing, too. We'd go play Gatlinburg in October, and our kids would get out on stage during our breaks and just bring the house down! You could tell they had a ton of talent."


Herb and his sons spent most of their time playing together, rehearsing songs by Jim Croce, Glen Campbell, and Kansas along with many of the old hymns and standards that Herb grew up with. "They both really amazed me. Steven would take off singing songs like Amos Moses, and I just couldn't figure out how he could play that lick and sing it at the same time. He'd say, 'Practice, dad. Practice, practice!'"


As the boys grew, Herb found himself spending more time tending to the success of the Village Singers. "We were certainly getting bigger, and it was taking me away more. But I really felt that God wanted me home to raise my family, spending time with Stevie and Herbie." Olivet Baptist Church offered him the position of minister of music, and against the encouragement of many who saw surefire success in the music business, Herb took the job to stay close to home. "So we were home and together. We'd sing with the choir together and come home and write songs around the kitchen table."


The boys' love for music and their talent to create continued to grow. After the Young Americans performed at their school, Herb, Jr. auditioned at the insistence of Steven. He was accepted into the group and eventually studied under Barbara Striesand's vocal coach. "He'd call back home and tell me, 'They're showing me all the things you taught us, dad!'" Herb, Jr. later joined Loretta Lynn, playing with her touring band.


Right after high school Steven was hired as an entertainer at Opryland. "He wrote songs, and they were recorded by people like Sandi Patty and The Imperials," recalls Herb, Sr. Steven also attracted the attention of a pretty influential Nashville player.


"Roy Acuff would go around Opryland and listen to the musicians. He took a special interest in Steven. He told him he had a gift for writing and said he could make it in the country music business." Steven, however, wasn't sold on the country music scene and called home to talk things over with his dad. "He'd say, 'Mr. Acuff says this and that, but what do you think?' Stevie told me that he just wanted to sing for the Lord. I told him to go for it. 'Good, dad,' he said. 'I know God won't let me starve.'"


Far from the stereotypical starving artist, Steven Curtis Chapman racked up 47 number one hits on Christian radio, won five Grammys and 57 Dove Awards, and became one of the most celebrated artists to play contemporary Christian music. But no matter the success, the cornerstone for Steven remained his faith and his family. "I remember he was on the Ralph Emery Show," says Herb, Sr., "and he was really tan. Ralph asked him what he'd been doing to get so dark, and he said he'd been fishing with his best friend. Ralph asked who that was, and Steven smiled and said, 'My dad!'"


Herb, Jr., who, much like his dad wanted to be home more, ultimately came off road tours and took a job with Steven as his property manager. "They are so incredibly close. It's amazing. They are just best friends and close prayer partners. But that's the way we always were. We were always so close." The Chapman family ties are still strong, even after the tests of fame and success; and those very ties are now bringing the family full circle.


While making music together is a common occurrence for the Chapman family, each family member has pursued an individual professional career. Steven and Herb, Jr. now work together, but Steven's attempts over the years at pulling his dad into the Nashville scene were unsuccessful. "Very early on he'd asked me to be his manager," recalls Herb. "Of course I didn't have all the connections that other more qualified guys had. And I wanted to let him go with it and do his thing. I just felt like I should back off. He even tried to get me on the Opry once before. I had some health problems at the time and really just didn't feel up to it. Stevie kept saying, 'Aw, dad. You'll be ok. I don't want to have to get up on the Opry and tell everyone that you just didn't want to come!' Of course he didn't do that, but it would've been funny."


In recent years, Steven's heart continued to go back to the early days of his life. An idea emerged, and he knew he had something that would get his dad and brother involved. "He'd been wanting to revisit the kind of songs we played early on. The idea of getting back to his roots took hold, and that's how Deep Roots came to be. Cracker Barrell was interested in a project like that, so it all came together." The album features old hymns that are special to Steven as well as some of his older songs reimagined in an acoustic style. The front porch, bluegrass style is different for a Steven Curtis Chapman album, but it is a style he is very familiar with.


Herb, Sr. and Herb, Jr. joined Steven in the studio, and the album took shape. "He wanted kind of a raw sound," says Herb, Sr. "He liked what Johnny Cash had done on his last album, so we kind of went for that. Steven's played with the London Philharmonic, and here we were in the studio playing around and doing takes and just keeping them the way they were."


Late one night, the Chapman magic took form. "We'd run out of songs, it was midnight, and out of the blue he asked if I remembered the old railroad song we used to do. So we just took off on it! It was certainly off the cuff. I was worn out by the end. It was late, and I had to come back to Paducah. I got home, crawled into bed, and really didn't know how it turned out. Steve called all excited the next day. 'It's good, dad!'"


Life is Like a Mountain Highway became the Chapman family swan song on the album and one of its key tracks. "It is different than the usual for Steven who has been very contemporary. I told him that's the way we did music back when I lived in Harlan County!"


Deep Roots debuted in March and immediately went to #1 on Billboard's bluegrass chart and #2 on their Christian music chart. In less than a week after its debut, Herb, Sr. was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry giving the world its first live taste of Life is Like a Mountain Highway. The Chapman men were backed by Ricky Skaggs and his band. "I just started playing and singing, and once we got going, it was no problem. Afterward Stevie told me, 'Dad, you knocked 'em out!'"


The moment was highly emotional not only for the Chapmans but for the audience as well. "The Opry people loved it,” Herb, Jr. commented. “I kept hearing that it was one of those rare Opry moments. I had to ask what that meant. Someone told me it was like the time Hank Williams took the stage for the first time and sang I Saw the Light. I was shocked to hear that. Those are some big shoes to fill!"


The success of Deep Roots and the Opry appearance have led to talks about a follow-up album and more concert appearances. "I don't know where all this is going," laughs Herb, Sr. "We'll just have to see!"


Whether there are albums and concerts or not, the Chapmans will continue to make music together. Not long ago, Herb, Sr. gave Steven the ukulele that launched his own musical career. "We're still singing and playing around the table whenever we can," says Herb. "Mom, who lived to be 99, got to see her musical legacy come to fruition, and Stevie and Herbie are bringing their families into it. We've all just been so blessed to do what we love. And looking back, focusing on my boys was the right thing to do. Stevie's told me that if I hadn't done that, he wouldn't be where he is today.


"My boys have certainly accomplished a lot. Of course I am proud, but when I think of them I hardly ever think of that. I still see them as the boys who made music in our house. I guess to me they'll always just be Stevie and Herbie"






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