Can smart-aleck Texan Gary Chapman find fame as country’s answer to David Letterman? Sure—but first he has to emerge from his wife’s shadow.
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GARY CHAPMAN DOES NOT HAVE A PICTURE of pop-gospel superstar Amy Grant, his wife of fifteen years, anywhere in his office, though he does have one of Don Knotts as Barney Fife, the deputy sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show, along with black and white portraits of his three children. In fact, if you look around the cozy room where 39-year-old Chapman rehearses his monologue for Prime Time Country, the talk show he hosts four nights a week on The Nashville Network (TNN), the only hint of his marriage to Grant is a red flag he stole from the Florida golf course where Caddyshack was filmed. Encased in glass like a precious relic, it bears an inscription from the movie’s star: “Gary, on your deathbed, you will receive . . . Amy . . . which is nice. Bill Murray.” But even it is tucked in a corner, so it’s not something you’d notice.
That’s fitting, for after being known for most of his adult life as Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman is finally forging an identity of his own. This year Chapman, who grew up in the North Central Texas town of De Leon, won a Grammy nomination for best pop-contemporary gospel album, his second nod in four years. Last year he was named male vocalist of the year by the Gospel Music Association (GMA), began a syndicated Christian countdown radio show that airs in more than two hundred markets across the country, and—most important—landed his gig on Prime Time Country, turning a show that had fizzled under previous hosts into a modest success, attracting A-list guests like Reba McEntire and Clint Black and increasing the viewership 25 percent, from 552,000 to 690,000 households a night. “When I make phone calls now, I get return phone calls, and the people are showing up,” says the show’s producer, RAC Clark. “We have a personality.” Indeed, at humor-challenged TNN—whose staple programming is bass fishing, line dancing, and reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard—Chapman is a maverick: He derides his looks, dangles from a hard hat caked with denture adhesive, and eats dog food (Country Gold, George Jones’s brand).
Such David Letterman—esque behavior explains why CBS is giving Chapman his network television debut on August 6, as a cohost of the prime-time special CountryFest ’97, and it also solves an abiding mystery: how a guy like him ever landed a babe like Amy Grant. “I’m not cute, but I’m funny,” he explains simply, reclining on Prime Time Country’s Opryland set on a February morning. But actually, with his aw-shucks resemblance to Harry Connick, Jr., he is cute—cuter, certainly, than when he married Grant in 1982, when his hair was a puffy cap of curls and his nose was still a jutting beak. And, anyway, wit is only part of his allure. “He’s a very diverse individual,” says Chapman’s friend Tony Brown, the president of MCA Records Nashville. Indeed, as Grant (who declined to be interviewed for this story) once told a reporter: “You just get the feeling that you think you’re walking through the threshold of his personality. You see one hundred more doors in front of you. . . . It’s almost like a magnet that pulls so much deeper than the surface.”
The complexity of Chapman’s musical résumé bears out that point. His CDs offer full-blown R&B selections, schmaltzy love duets, an a cappella church hymn, even a John Hiatt cover. And though he is primarily a gospel singer, he has toured with pop star and erstwhile Grateful Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby and cut a straight pop album, Everyday Man. And in addition to being a singer, he’s a guitarist, an award-winning producer, and a songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Vanessa Williams (“Goodbye”), T. G. Sheppard (the 1981 number one country hit “Finally”) and Grant, including her first number one on the gospel charts, “Father’s Eyes.”
Not necessarily what you’d expect for a country TV host, but considering the hodgepodge that country music is today, Chapman’s layers suit him for the job. “He’s very intelligent, so he can talk to people on different levels,” says Brian Hughes, TNN’s vice president of programming. “He can be a little left of center and sarcastic, and then there’s the kind of lovable kid in him that endears him to some of the moms and grandmas out there.” That’s a secret of Chapman’s success: He appeals to the young people who’ve been entranced by country music since its explosion in the early nineties—kids who buy anything from honky-tonk traditionalists in jeans to young pretties in Versace and retro hipsters in Colonel Sanders ties—without alienating the network’s core audience, a group more enamored of buttoned-up Barbara Mandrell than bare-bellied Shania Twain or Mindy McCready.
Chapman’s natural, self-deprecating personality comes through when he plays the foil to his beefcake guests—when he informs a singer known as the Tennessee Studmuffin that he himself is the Tennessee bran muffin or when he opens “Country Hunks Week” by marveling that he is being allowed to host it. He got LeAnn Rimes, a notoriously stiff interview, to relax with a quiz-show—type Q&A complete with a bell, and he let Deana Carter shave his leg. But a certain tension belies the gaiety in as much as Chapman’s heroes are country’s old guard, who’ve been kicked off the radio by the same crop of studs and cuties he books as guests. To compensate, he goes out of his way to put older personalities in a funny, relevant light. During “Country Hunks Week,” for example, he had Little Jimmy Dickens, a 76-year-old Nashville legend, dispense advice on women. And Prime Time Country is one of the few places where George Jones can debut new material. “I know I’m gonna get in trouble for saying it,” Chapman asked Jones during one visit, “but doesn’t it make you mad that your records don’t get played?”
And yet, for all the buzz he’s generating, Chapman’s sensibility has raised a few eyebrows at TNN. What is the corn pone network to make of someone who augments hog-call and cow-chip jokes with O.J. and Dr. Kevorkian fare or dresses up like Marcia Brady for a visit from the actress who played the mom on The Brady Bunch? “The more we get into this, the more important it is that the substance of whatever Gary does has to be something country in nature,” said TNN’s Brian Hughes a few months after Chapman took over. “We’re really focused on getting Gary and his producers to understand that we don’t want to talk about the things that Letterman and [Jay] Leno are talking about.” As younger viewers have materialized, Chapman’s retort has gotten more confident—“If it’s true that the guy that listens to country radio and buys country records is living in some kind of country bubble and reading Country USA Today and watching the NBC Nightly Country News, then that kind of thinking applies,” he says. But even Chapman recognizes his limits. The Monday after this year’s Masters Tournament, he came out raring to celebrate Tiger Woods, but after only a glimmer of recognition he quickly changed the subject. Another time, a visiting musician from North Dakota prompted Chapman’s effusive praise of the film Fargo, but only about four people in the audience had seen it.
Of course, it isn’t the first time that Chapman’s talents have gone unacknowledged. He has long endured being Mr. Amy Grant, for example—especially in the mid-eighties, when his wife became the Madonna of gospel, filling stadiums and selling 20 million records. He insisted it didn’t ruffle him; he knew the crucial role he played in her early success: mentoring her, executive producing her records, and writing the song that launched her career. And if people weren’t privy to that, they would at least have to give him this: He was, after all, the guy who took Amy Grant home after the show. That, though, soon proved an embarrassing distinction when Grant revealed that after a lifetime of anticipation, her wedding-night deflowering wasn’t quite what she had hoped. In fact, she termed the first four months of connubial romps a “yawn.”
To add insult to injury, Chapman would sometimes suffer the humiliation of performing in between lively sets by his wife. Fans who’d been dancing and cheering would take their seats en masse and start chatting as soon as he stepped to the microphone. At an Amarillo show in 1985 he stopped a few seconds into his first tune and barked, “Am I boring you people?” “I had a lot of reasons to be angry,” he says. “I don’t think any of them were valid, but they were to me at the time. I know that I felt overlooked.”
“I think there have been times when he has been so overwhelmed that the temptation is basically to do like Jonah and take a ship in the opposite direction,” says Scotty Smith, a longtime Chapman friend who is the pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. In fact, Chapman did just that by sinking into a drug habit that he says began when he was twenty. At the same time that Amy’s manager was declaring to Rolling Stone in 1985 that on tours, “There’s no drug use—we do try to uphold a certain moral code,” Chapman was regularly using cocaine and marijuana. “I had two distinctly different lives,” he says today. “Different sets of friends, different likes, dislikes, actions, everything.” Grant wasn’t aware of his drug use, he insists, though as his moods darkened and communication broke down, a marital separation seemed imminent. Faced with that prospect, Chapman came clean, and with the help of counseling, he and Amy put things back together.
That Chapman wrote resounding songs about the godly life while he was getting stoned shows how multileveled his faith is. At age seven he had his initial born-again experience soon after his father, Terry, an Assemblies of God preacher, moved his wife, two sons, and daughter from Waurika, Oklahoma, to De Leon in 1964. But finding Jesus didn’t keep little Gary on the narrow path. “Well, he changed the letters on the funeral home to read ‘fun home,’” Terry recalls. “He just really always wanted to push it to the very edge.” In small-town Texas Gary spent his time laying irrigation pipes on peanut farms, working on a Charolais ranch, and teaching himself to play guitar by imitating Chet Atkins records.
After he graduated from high school, in 1975, Chapman set off for an eighteen-month stint at the Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, where he learned more about partying than about theology. “It was some of the wildest times of my life,” he says, though he declines to be specific about what he calls his “illicit behavior.” His real love, he knew, was music, so he set off for Nashville in 1977 to play pedal steel guitar for two gospel groups, the Downings and the Rambos, before trying his hand at songwriting. In 1978 he won his first songwriting contract on the strength of an innocent, catchy tune called “Father’s Eyes.” Amy Grant, then eighteen, cried the first time she heard it and made it the signature track of her second album, My Father’s Eyes, which was released in 1979. Chapman saw her for the first time at a record company party and fell in love on the spot. “I think I annoyed her,” he recalls. “I asked her out in front of her boyfriend.” But she warmed up to him a few months later, in the summer of 1981, when Chapman opened for her on tour. They married the following year.
The union inspired Chapman, whose 1981 and 1983 gospel releases flopped, to channel his energy into Grant’s burgeoning career, and he worked on most of her subsequent albums. In fact, the first not to bear his name as a collaborator was the 1991 smash Heart in Motion. “There was a conscious decision to let her go on and make her own mistakes and chart her own course professionally, and for me to do the same,” says Chapman. A few years later the professional break from Grant finally nudged Chapman to once again chase his own musical success, with 1994’s The Light Inside and last year’s Shelter: They delivered his first three number one hits on the Christian charts and established him as a major gospel star.
But in the end, twenty years of performing couldn’t deliver Gary Chapman the recognition he has received in less than a year of hosting Prime Time Country. A single deft turn cohosting the GMA’s twenty-sixth annual Dove Awards show in 1995 got the TV ball rolling, prompting Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium to have him develop and host a syndicated bimonthly country-gospel-bluegrass show called Sam’s Place, which in turn got TNN to order a few specials and invite him to guest host Prime Time Country before winning the job permanently. “I think it was predestined that he be someone of stature in this industry,” says MCA Records’ Tony Brown.
Chapman says he has a country CD and an autobiography in the works, but what the future holds beyond that is anyone’s guess. As far as the show goes, TNN wants him to deliver an average 1.2 to 1.3 household rating, or about 860,000 viewers each night. That seems doable, as he has already copped several 1.4’s and a 1.6. But is it possible he’ll transcend country TV altogether? “Gary Chapman is the next Leno,” his pal Bruce Hornsby has said. “Prime Time Country is but a mere stepping stone to major network late-night greatness.”
And that would be fine with Amy Grant. “If I had my druthers,” she once said, “I would be at home. It would suit me just being Mrs. Gary Chapman.”T
Freelance writer Jamie Schilling Fields was born in Canyon and grew up in Amarillo.