Vic Chesnutt - Biography
Vic Chesnutt was born in Jacksonville, FL, in 1964, and grew up in Zebulon, GA. A drunk-driving automobile crash in his late teens left him semi-paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Around 1985 he relocated to Athens, GA, a college town most famous for being the birthplace of REM. For a while he was a member of local band the La-di-dahs. Chesnutt had been writing songs since he was a child, and following the break-up of the La-di-dahs, began appearing regularly as a solo performer in the local Athens clubs. His partial paralysis limited his guitar playing to simple strums, but he soon earned a reputation for his stark yet often humorous songwriting. He also earned a reputation around town as a heavy drinker and an occasionally nasty drunk.
In 1990, REM vocalist Michael Stipe took Chesnutt into a local recording studio and produced his first record, Little (1990 Texas Hotel). The rumor was that Stipe wanted to document Chesnutt’s songs before Chesnutt died from his overindulgences in alcohol and drugs. (Chesnutt has allegedly attempted suicide once or twice since the beginning of his solo career). Little is a stark and sobering work; largely Chesnutt on guitar and vocals, with Stipe contributing organ parts here and there, and the odd backing vocal as well. Chesnutt displayed an eccentric and powerful command of language; his songs were a blend of childhood memories, tragicomic characters right out of Faulkner, and some rather twisted love songs. All were delivered in his sometimes conversational, sometimes frightening snarl of a voice, a snarl made all the more menacing by often being whispered rather than screamed. The only “cover” on the album was Chesnutt’s adaptation of the Stevie Smith poem “Not Waving, But Drowning,” a rough cassette recording with angelic female backing vocals, and his very young niece Liz Durrett on violin.
He followed Little the next year with West of Rome (1991 Texas Hotel). Again produced by Stipe, this record showed a starling maturation of both Chesnutt’s material and his singing. Backed on most of the album by a small bass and drums combo (and featuring the debut of Chesnutt’s electric lead playing on “Withering”) the album is still considered by many to be Chesnutt’s finest. Ignoring the false-start of the dismissible opening track “Latent/Blatant,” the record features a sound and feel like few other records; think of the first Modern Lovers album, or Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The album casts a spell on the listener, dragging him or her through the turbulence and turmoil of Chesnutt’s most gripping and emotional work. “Florida” is a tear-inducing elegy (delivered with his customary gallows’ humor) for a friend's gruesome suicide, and the title track a crawlingly slow dissection of a fractured family that dissolves into Chesnutt’s unearthly howling. An indie documentary film of the making of the album, entitled Speed Racer aired on PBS in 1992.
Drunk (1993 Texas Hotel) was quickly recorded and reportedly made under drunken conditions. The songs are uneven in quality; standouts include the obscene and laconic “Dodge” and the morphine drip-fed “Supernatural.” 1995’s Is the Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel) featured more conventional backing, and could be considered a folk rock/Americana album, with some excellent songs and ensemble playing. Michael Stipe trades verses with Chesnutt on a “Guilty by Association,” a song about friendship and fame. About to Choke (1996 Capitol) was his major-label debut and a somewhat disappointing effort, with rather weak material presented in a mostly unimaginative fashion.
That same year Chesnutt’s songs came to the attention of a much wider audience, with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (1996 Sony). The first Sweet Relief release had featured various artists performing the songs of singer/songwriter Victoria Williams. Proceeds from the album went to help Williams pay for the medical expenses related to her MS. This was the beginning of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a non-profit agency dedicated to providing financial aid for indigent musicians’ health care.
Sweet Relief II contained versions of Chesnutt’s songs by a wide variety of artists, from The Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna, from Hootie and the Blowfish to the Indigo Girls. Madonna’s duet with brother-in-law Joe Henry on “Guilty by Association” only proved her inability to sing a simply harmony. Elsewhere, Chesnutt and Victoria Williams duet nicely on his “God is Good,” and reclusive Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara works magic with “Florida.”
Chesnutt’s own next release was a collaborative effort with the large Nashville-based alt-country band Lambchop. The Salesman and Bernadette (1998 Polygram) was a loosely conceptual recording featuring some excellent songs and very sympathetic backing by Lambchop. It is one of Chesnutt’s finest efforts to date.
Following a so-so collaboration with Kelly and Nikki Keneipp (Merriment, 2000 Backburner), Chesnutt released Left to His Own Devices (2001 spinART) his last great album to date. It is a compilation of unreleased songs largely recorded solo, with additional instrumentation derived mainly from musical software programs such as Garage Band. For the first time he deals squarely with his disability, in both “We Should Be So Brave,” an acid-tongued dissection of those who would condescend or pity, and set-closer "Look At Me," an acapella song that finds an unusually positive, even joyous, Chesnutt celebrating his survival.
He has since released four additional albums. Silver Lake (2003 New West Records) and Ghetto Bells (2005 New West) both featured some first-call collaborators, including longtime Brian Wilson lyricist Van Dyke Parks and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. However, the songs are largely uninspiring, and the guest appearances and string arrangements are sometimes little more than window dressing.
Chesnutt recorded two collaboration with bluegrass-jam band Widespread Panic, under the name brute (sic); Nine High a Pallet (1995 Capricorn Records) and Cobalt (2002 Widespread Records). Both are worth a listen. Despite the somewhat diminished intensity and surprise of his more recent releases, Chesnutt's a clever, funny, ironic and sometimes painfully bleak singer/songwriter, capable of moving a listener to laughter and tears in the same song. His vivid characterizations and tightly drawn lyrics have the feel of short stories, and he has acknowledged the great influence of literature and poetry (particularly English poetess Stevie Smith) on his own work. His earliest albums, Little and West of Rome, have been re-released, with extra cuts, on New West Records. On December 25, 2009 Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45.