This Is Their Song

While millions of mourners have sought comfort in Elton John’s new version of “Candle in the Wind” since the death of Princess Diana, John himself has turned to a hauntingly optimistic song from another writer.

The tune, “Sand and Water,” is the title track from an album by Nashville-based singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman that deals with the pain surrounding the 1994 cancer death of her husband.

John, who decided it would be “inappropriate” to perform “Candle in the Wind” in concert so soon after Diana’s funeral, found “Sand and Water” so compelling that he is singing it on his current U.S. concert tour. He says that it expresses his own sense of loss over the deaths of his friends Diana and fashion designer Gianni Versace:


I will see you in the light of a thousand suns

I will hear you in the sound of the waves

I will know you when I come, as we all will come

Through the doors beyond the grave.

“It says everything I want to say,” John said in a recent interview with The Times. “I can’t sing ‘Candle in the Wind,’ but I have to get something out of me, and that song will help me do it.”

When John told Chapman the same thing, she was overwhelmed. “It was so moving to me that he would share with me, on a personal level, how much this record had impacted him,” says Chapman, who has recorded four pop albums as well as written hits for such country artists as Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker.

“And then when he went on to say he was going to sing ‘Sand and Water'--I think when he told me initially, it didn’t really register. I hung up the phone and said, ‘I think he said that, but no, he couldn’t have.’ ”

It’s the latest odd twist in Chapman’s career, which seemed ready to take flight before her husband, Ernest, a counselor for troubled adolescents, contracted a rare form of lymphoma in 1993 and was given two months to live.

He hung on for 18 months, during which time his wife began writing the songs that would wind up on “Sand and Water.”

Chapman, 41, had already written hits for Nelson (“Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now”) and Tucker (“Strong Enough to Bend”) and others. Several of her own recordings from earlier albums--including the songs “Walk My Way” and “The Moment You Were Mine"--were staples of adult contemporary radio in the early ‘90s.

Her range covers pop, rock, intimate ballads, sensual soul and solemn spirituals--"all done with an undercurrent of revelation and intelligence,” says Nashville critic Michael McCall, who compares Chapman to Carole King and “the earnest side of Elton John.”

But Chapman never intended the songs she wrote in the months before and after her husband’s death to be heard outside her own house.

“I wasn’t writing them to make a record,” she says. “I was just trying to get myself through my own personal experience and the crisis of losing my husband and coming to terms with what that meant.”

Though her husband encouraged her to document her experiences on an album, Chapman couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to listen.

“I’m absolutely amazed and honored and overjoyed,” she says of John’s enthusiasm for the record and other feedback from listeners. “I couldn’t foresee that it would be entertainment for anyone. I thought it would just be so sad and sorrowful. . . .

“But what ended up happening was that, as the songs were forming, there was a lot of light and hope--and a lot of staying connected. . . . Really, if you listen to this album, it’s not a sad or depressing way to spend time.”

Still, it wasn’t until a year after her husband’s death that a grieving Chapman could bring herself to go into a recording studio. Even then, it was several days before she could get anything usable on tape.

“I couldn’t get through a song without falling apart,” she says. “I was crying hard and I couldn’t sing. Three days into it, I said, ‘I’ve got to go sit in the parking lot and let somebody else use the studio.’ . . . But Rodney [Crowell, the album’s producer] assured me that on the other side of this wall of tears were these performances. I didn’t believe it, but I trusted it.”

Released in July on Reprise Records, “Sand and Water” had sold only about 3,500 copies through mid-September, but sales have nearly tripled since John talked about the album late last month in an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in other interviews.

“Elton’s comments have opened some doors for us to help get the music heard,” says Chris Palmer, vice president of progressive music for Warner/Reprise Nashville. “It’s certainly a marvelous gift--him giving us this forum. All of a sudden people are saying, ‘I need to check this out.’

“And I think if people hear this music, which comes literally from this woman’s heart, they’re going to be touched by it and we’re going to sell a lot of records.”

That would be a welcome change for Chapman, who has used music more as a source of stability than a path to stardom since she was born into an Air Force family in Harlingen, Texas.

Growing up a typical “military brat” on bases from California to Germany, Chapman claimed her father’s guitar and the family piano as her own at an early age. Her varied early influences included the Beatles and ‘60s soul music, as well as her parents’ albums of Broadway show tunes and Hoagy Carmichael.

But it was the introspective music of the singer-songwriters of the ‘70s--from John and Billy Joel to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell--that convinced her to pursue a singing career.

Married in 1979, she released her first album, “Hearing It First,” in 1980. But after the album failed to sell and she gave birth to a son, Ernest Jr., Chapman withdrew from the music business until her husband encouraged her to continue writing a few years later.

In 1985, after the family relocated to Nashville, she began turning out songs that turned into country hits for other artists.

When Chapman resumed her singing career in 1990, however, her recordings were rooted in pop and soft rock.

“I live in Nashville and I have three names, so people just assume I’m a country artist,” she says. “But I’ve never tried to be a country artist, and I’m not played on country radio. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sort it all out.”

Crowell, a country singer-songwriter who was a close friend of Chapman and her husband long before he took on the role of producer for “Sand and Water,” says Chapman doesn’t really fit in the country music capital.

“I think it galls her a little bit as an artist to get lumped in with that commercial country-pop stuff,” he says. “But there’s actually a very creative community in Nashville that exists outside of the mainstream. And in that sense, Beth is a very well-respected member of the community, recognized as a poet and a fine songwriter.”

Chapman first met John after the English pop star sent her flowers “out of nowhere” after hearing her first Reprise album, 1990’s “Beth Nielsen Chapman.”

About a year later, Chapman met John at an AIDS walk in Atlanta.

She didn’t see him again until last summer, when she gave him an advance copy of her new album.

John took an immediate liking to the record, he said, but the songs didn’t really resonate until after he suffered losses of his own. He ultimately chose “Sand and Water” to express his feelings.

First, though, he asked Chapman to rewrite a verse that deals specifically with Chapman’s son to make it more universal. Though the pressure of trying to come up with something cost her some sleep--"It was a challenge to go back into the pool of my own experience and reopen those feelings,” she says--Chapman was only too happy to oblige.

“I’m honored,” she says.

And touched.

“Everything associated with this record has seemed very magical, and I can’t help but believe that in some way those who go beyond this world have something to do with the energy that comes back,” Chapman says. “I think each person’s soul has its own agenda and its own place to go, but I have a very positive feeling of connection that we’re all taken care of and you have to not worry about it.”