Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010 is a contemporary exploration by the English guitarist and singer-songwriter Michael Chapman of his oeuvre since he came onto the folk scene in the mid-’60s. At two discs and 26 cuts, it’s a daunting enterprise to undertake in order to fully come to know the eclectic Chapman, but the songs, recorded for solo guitar with no accompaniment (vocal or otherwise), come to such vivid life that it’s easy to dive right in.
What the retrospective also shows is how remarkable a songwriter Chapman is. Each song gets a short blurb from Chapman reminiscing on its origin in the liner notes. “Fahey’s Flag,” an homage to John Fahey where Chapman takes up the American guitarist’s taste for outsider, lo-fi, slightly out-of-tune folk, was inspired by a “bizarre dinner” with Fahey in L.A., where Fahey complained to Chapman that his wife wouldn’t let him bring a flag from the Nuremberg rallies into bed with her. “Sweet Little Friend From Georgia” tells the instrumental tale of a guitar Chapman found in Ringold, Georgia, in 1999, while Senegal inspired “Elenkine,” and “Naked Ladies And Electric Ragtime” was written for two of Chapman’s favorite things.
It’s amazing that a guitarist of Chapman’s breadth and skill is so little known today. While Fahey has long been the godhead of the eccentric acoustic blues, and Bert Jansch has recently been rediscovered by indie audiences, Chapman has remained largely behind the scenes. Along with the release of Tompkins Square’s Trainsong, Light In The Attic has re-issued Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor, from 1970. That album features Chapman vocals that you won’t hear on Trainsong and brilliant weirdo arrangements for Chapman’s acoustic guitar along with orchestral strings, drums, electric bass from Steelyeye Span’s Rick Kemp, and psychedelic electric guitar work by Mick Ronson. Here Chapman has the songwriting sensibility of Nick Drake or Dylan but his sound is more often the British psych folk variety of Pentangle or Incredible String Band. The band also takes on bluesy hard rock on “Soulful Lady” while “Rabbit Hills” wouldn’t have been out of place on Jerry Jeff Walker’s Driftin’ Way Of Life. Survivor is a remarkable record that touches ground all over the musical map. Just when you think you’ve got Chapman pegged, he goes off in an entirely different direction with complete fluency.
Chapman hasn’t lost touch with his musical gift in the years since Survivor. His most recent compositions are still some of his best. Trainsong’s “Caddo Lake,” written in 2000, is one of the album’s most heart-wrenching moments, with its unfolding, descending melody. And Chapman is poised to perk up the ears of a younger generation, as Bert Jansch recently has with Black Swan (produced by Noah Georgeson of Devendra Banhart’s band and released on indie label Drag City). Fingerpicking enthusiasts will rejoice when Chapman and the younger American guitarist Willliam Tyler (Lambchop, Bonnie “Prince” Billy) play a series of shows together in the UK this April, before Chapman tours the U.S. this summer.