Singer, songwriter, guitar
While numerous artists can produce convincing stories of alienation, guilt, remorse, self-effacing misery, and overall heartbreak through song, few, if any, accomplish the talk with the same bitter pleasure, honesty, left-handed wit, or charm of songwriter and Athens, Georgia, resident Vic Chesnutt. Singing in an unsteady voice and strumming simple chords on an acoustic guitar from his wheelchair (a confinement that resulted from a paralyzing car accident), Chesnutt mastered the skill of turning predictable emotions inside out by using sublime and intentionally unpolished lyrics. A colorful idealist and storyteller as well, Chesnutt was not afraid to confront his own shortcomings, as well as the world’s in general, through his music. His poignant, despairing and mordant yet humorous poetry led reviewers to compare his lyrics to southern author Flannery O’Connor. “In a bleak corrosion of Chesnutt’s tender idealism,” Ira A. Robbins asserted in the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, “a highly literate mind in a ruined body becomes a willful primitive with a ferocious and highly developed sense of irony. His skilled songwriting burns with reality’s pain while glowing with imagination.” Thanks in a large part to the encouragement and support of one famous fan and frequent producer, Michael Stipe of the Athens-based band R.E.M., who had been taken by Chesnutt’s music since the early 1980s, the songwriter’s popularity continued to broaden throughout the following decade.
Chesnutt was born in 1965 in Jacksonville, Florida, where he spent his early childhood with his adoptive parents. Besides curiosities about his genetic makeup (he insisted that because of his craving for Guinness beer, he must have at least some Irish blood), Chesnutt never felt driven to seek out his biological parents. After moving with immediate family to Athens, Georgia, Chesnutt still maintained close ties with his native state, spending summers with his extended family who lived in the town of Live Oak, also located in northern Florida. Later on, the southern United States, including Florida, would figure into Chesnutt’s songwriting. The song “Betty Lonely,” for instance, “is totally a Florida love song… a love song for Florida,” he told Gavin Foster in an interview for the online magazine Ink Blot. However, along with the state’s wildlife and natural beauty, Chesnutt also drew attention to how man destroyed much of the land. “But they [developers] have raped Florida in a major way, just completely… by digging canals and draining the wetlands,” he continued. “It’s a fascinating history Florida has… like the turn of the century cattle farms… I’m completely tied to it in my imagination.”
Language and its usage has also fascinated Chesnutt and influenced his lyrical output. “I’ve always been interested in the evocative nature of language,” he said
Born in 1965 in Jacksonville, FL.
Began performing at clubs in Athens, GA, caught the attention of Michael Stipe of R.E.M., early 1980s; signed with Texas Hotel Records and released debut album Little, 1990; released West of Rome, Texas Hotel, 1992; released Drunk, Texas Hotel, 1994; released Is the Actor Happy?, 1995; released Nine High a Pallet, Capricorn, 1995; released and recorded with various artists Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, 1996; signed with Capitol Records and released About to Choke, 1996; signed with Capricorn Records and released The Salesman and Bernadette, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Capricorn Records, 83 Walton St., Atlanta, GA 30303, phone: (404) 954-6600, fax: (404) 954-6687.
to Thor Christensen of the Dallas Morning News. “One song I remember really liking [growing up] was the Beatles ‘Cry Baby Cry,’ which is kind of an adult nursery rhyme with surreal lyrics.” Other creative spirits that influenced Chesnutt included Austrian writer Franz Kafka. “The things he was writing about were so surreal and insane, but he always had this calm tone, which inspired me a great deal.”
From an early age, Chesnutt began to contemplate other subjects that would impact his musical creativity, such as his personal notion of reality (or lack thereof), idealism, and spiritual longing. All of these emotions and perspectives culminated in 1983 when Chesnutt, then 18 years old and playing keyboards in an Athens band called the La De Das, was driving under the influence, lost control of his car, and ended up in a ditch. The accident left him a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, a condition that impacted his art, though mostly in a physical sense. “One hand is paralyzed, and the other has big problems,” Chesnutt, who strums his guitar with a pick attached to his arm, explained to Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan. “So it definitely affects the notes I play and how I play ‘em. I’m physically impaired. I’ve got to be a little wily to play.” In contrast, Chesnutt believed that the debilitating injury resulted in few overall differences in his songwriting. “I’ve gained insights into the human condition, may be from the way l am now, from the times in the hospital and being relegated to handicapped parking spaces,” continued Chesnutt. “I’ve been writing songs my whole life, even before I was in a wheelchair, so I still think about the same things I did before.” And despite the public celebrity he enjoyed in his later career, the irreverent singer declined to serve as a spokesman for people with similar conditions. “I don’t really talk about ‘disabled issues’ or whatever you call it. Most of the time, my political views on the issues are a little different than the norm.”
Soon after recovering from the accident, Chesnutt struck out on his own, playing contemporary acoustic folk music on guitar and singing in clubs around Athens. One of the town’s most renowned citizens, Michael Stipe, became a huge fan of Chesnutt after seeing one of his shows at the 40 Watt Club and encouraged the local hero to start a recording career of his own. After some prodding, Chesnutt agreed, and Stipe helped produce the singer’s debut album and worked on landing Chesnutt a record contract. Recorded in one day in 1988 at Stipe’s offices in Athens, featuring a trace of synthesizer on the track “Speed Racer” and a small acoustic band for “Stevie Smith,” Little was eventually picked up by the Texas Hotel label and released in 1990. Other songs on the album included “Rabbit Box,” which told the story of Chesnutt, as a child, catching a rabbit and a possum, then setting the animals free and breathing a sigh of relief, and the passing along of the unfortunate story of Joan, a newspaper girl who hung herself entitled “Mr. Riley.” In the song, Chesnutt revealed, “They found her by the frozen lake but it wasn’t frozen enough to skate but by the look on her face it must have been awful tempting.”
For Chesnutt’s follow-up album, 1992’s West of Rome (also issued on Texas Hotel), Stipe incorporated a handful of musicians to play cello, bass, drums, and keyboards for a more ambitious production. More accomplished in his vocalization, Chesnutt put his naked emotions on the line for the challenging album. He focuses jealousy and romantic hurt in “Where Were You,” stumbles into an abyss of self-loathing in “Stupid Preoccupation,” and discovers that raw pain is beyond his control in “Withering.” Chesnutt, known for his clever play on words, engages this skill on the songs such as “Lucinda William” and “Sponge.” Other noteworthy songs included “Florida,” which Chesnutt declares the “perfect place to retire from life,” “Soggy Tongues,” an attack on malicious gossips, and “Steve Willoughby,” a song that displays Chesnutt’s guarded optimism.
After recording his first two albums, Chesnutt started to enjoy a building cult audience, and other famous rock musicians took notice of his intimate work. In 1994, Chesnutt took a significant leap forward in sound—at times more eclectic than acoustic—songwriting, and vocal development with the release of Drunk, his first accessible album. Chesnutt revealed later that he came up with the album’s name because the term described his state throughout the recording process—a heavy drinker in his younger days, Chesnutt quit consuming alcohol altogether in the late 1990s; years of excess had by then all but destroyed his liver. He brings forth his southern charm in songs like “Kick My Ass” and “Dodge,” which includes the lines: “I bent over backwards to misbehave/It’s a holy wonder I didn’t just flip over into an early grave,” a reference to his life-altering accident.
Delving further into his personal experiences, the singer in Drunk also recalls his hospital days in “Gluefoot” and “Supernatural,” all the while maintaining a sense of amusement about his own misfortunes. “I worry that there’s nothing universal in my songs,” the singer admitted to Ira Robbins in Newsday in 1994. “But I really don’t care. I don’t beg people to be listening to me or nothing.” According to Chesnutt, who also toured with the popular rock band Live that year, found satisfaction elsewhere: “I feel the best when I’m writing a tune.” For some people—the songwriter believes—listening to his music was similar to watching a movie. “Even if they don’t relate to it personally, they might appreciate my story, or just the circumstance around it,” Chesnutt continued. “A lot of my songs are rather vague, ‘cause I try to hide my specific meaning in metaphors and [stuff] like that. It’s what writers do…. Language is a heavy deal to me.”
Chesnutt’s fourth album for Texas Hotel, Is the Actor Happy, appeared in 1995 and saw the songwriter entering into the realm of commercial readiness. Under the guidance of producer John Keane of the Athens-based group Widespread Panic, a low-key backing trio and Chesnutt delivered the artist’s eccentric songs with empathy, such as for the far-away vision of “Thailand” and the close-up revelations of “Thumbtack.” He also illustrated his aptitude for balancing self-mocking humor and determination in “Gravity of the Situation,” taking the serious aspects of life in stride without assigning blame. Around the same time, Chesnutt dedicated time to a side project called Brute with the members of the group Widespread Panic, including Keane, David A. Schools, Michael Houser, Todd Nance, John Hermann, Johnny Hickman, and David Lowery. Brute released the country-soul-rock flavored album Nine High a Pallet in 1995.
The following year, Chesnutt’s fanbase exploded with the release of a tribute album by various artists entitled Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation. Up to that point, “I mainly just relied for my living on people liking my songs and telling other people,” Chesnutt told Sullivan. The first “Sweet Relief” album, released in 1993, paid tribute to the music of Victoria Williams, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. With the proceeds from that album, the Sweet Relief Musician Fund was established to aid artists who need medical assistance and remain uninsured. Likewise, sales of Chesnutt’s tribute, along with private contributions, helped expand and sustain the same trust. In addition to Stipe and his band R.E.M., other artists who performed Chesnutt’s songs for the release included Madonna, Live, Hootie and the Blowfish, the Smashing Pumpkins, Red Red Meat, Cracker, the Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Garbage, Soul Asylum, Kristin Hersh, Sparklehorse, Joe Henry, and Mary Margaret O’Hara. “I just love Vic. I think his music is so good, he’s written so many great songs,” Cracker’s David Lowery said to David John Farinella of Billboard magazine. “I’m a big fan. That’s why I wanted to do it.”
Soon after the songs of Chesnutt’s benefit album hit stores in 1996, the singer signed with a major label, Capitol Records, and released About to Choke that same year. Although a critical success, the album remained a bit too dark and enigmatic to garner substantial mainstream record sales. “A lot of people look at me and hear my music and think it’s too depressing, which I can’t understand,” Chesnutt told Christensen. “Every song of mine has something funny in it.” Nonetheless, Capitol released the musician from his contract shortly before he was scheduled to record his second and said, ‘Go find somebody who cares,’” he recalled pretty much gave the record to me and said, ‘Go find somebody who cares,’” he recalled to Steve Dollar of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1998. Around the same time, in spite of the setback, Chesnutt made his acting debut for a small role in the Billy Bob Thornton Sling Blade and was featured in a documentary of his life entitled Speed Racer, produced and directed by Peter Sillen. The film aired on PBS and was made available on video.
After leaving Capitol, Chesnutt accepted an offer to sign with Atlanta’s Capricorn Records, releasing his next album, The Salesman and Bernadette, in 1998. Another critical favorite, the album received an eight out of ten stars from Spin magazine reviewer Eric Weisbard, who wrote, “With a trembling quiver that’s loose, self-possessed and amply self-mocking, plus music that dips and flows just as thoroughly, Chesnutt’s oeuvre is passive/aggressive indolent: The same song can put you to sleep, then beat you up,” as quoted by Dollar in the Atlantic Journal and Constitution. Forthe album’s opening track, “Woodrow Wilson,” Chesnutt sang with country superstar Emmylou Harris. Meeting Harris, admitted Chesnutt, who grew up listening to albums by Dolly Parton and Hank Williams, made him somewhat nervous at first. “This was life-changing, meeting her,” he said to Steve Knopperof Newsday in 1999. “Now I was like, ‘I can’t suck now. I’ve met Emmylou.” “Moreover, The Salesman and Bernadette placed the singer before the public eye like never before, earning Chesnutt appearanees on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien and for the PBS concert series Sessions at West 57th.
Little, Texas Hotel, 1990.
West of Rome, Texas Hotel, 1992.
Drunk, Texas Hotel, 1994.
Is the Actor Happy?, Texas Hotel, 1995.
(With Widespread Panic) Brute, Nine High a Pallet, Capricorn, 1995.
(Various artists) Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (The Songs of Vic Chesnutt), Columbia, 1996.
About to Choke, Capitol, 1996.
The Salesman and Bernadette, Capricorn, 1998.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 15, 1997; August 19, 1997; December 18, 1998, p. P04..
Billboard, June 22, 1996, pp. 12-14; October 5, 1996, p. 18.
Dallas Morning News, January 22, 1999, p. 63.
Denver Rocky Mountain News, March 24, 1997, p. 14D.
Entertainment Weekly, August 2, 1995, p. 58; January 10, 1997, p. 58.
Newsday, June 26, 1994, p. 23; January 7, 1999, p. C01.
New York Times, October 30, 1998.
People, August 19, 1996, p. 23.
Playboy, January 1997, pp. 30-32.
Washington Post, July 16, 1999, p. N08.
“Vic Chesnutt,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com, February 10, 2000.
“Symposium with Vic Chesnutt,” Ink Blot Magazine, http://www.inkblotmagazine.com, February 10, 2000.
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