Vic was our Keats, our Nina Simone. There will never be another like him. – Guy Picciotto, Fugazi
It’s funny the things we tend to remember, or I should say, the things I tend to remember. The minutiae. The first time I heard the name Vic Chesnutt was in the Fall of 1995; I was 20 years old and a sophomore at the University of Georgia in Athens. Having recently been turned on to Jack Logan, via the University radio station, I walked downtown to Wuxtry Records to pick up his 2-disc debut, Bulk. Paying for it at the counter the clerk, noting my purchase, asked if I also liked Vic Chesnutt. No, I replied–I had never heard of him. That was 15 years ago. Chesnutt’s music has been with me ever since.
On Christmas day I heard the news that Vic Chestnutt was gone, dead at 45 from an overdose of muscle relaxants. Shocking as the news was, it was made even more surreal as I had just been shopping for Chesnutt vinyl a couple of days prior, had just seen him and his new (excellent) band December 1st here in L.A., and we had just listed At The Cut as not only one of our favorite albums of 2009, but deemed it “Chesnutt’s finest hour yet.” All appeared to be on the up and up for Chesnutt, at least from an outside perspective. In reality Chesnutt had apparently been struggling with deep depression, continued health issues, and stress and anxiety due to monster lawsuit from unpaid hospital bills in the tune of 50 thousand dollars. Tragic and sad.
Chesnutt was my kind of songwriter. There was no artifice, no bullshit. And while his music wasn’t pretty, and could be very grim at times, there was almost always a humor in it. How could there not be from the guy who wrote “Good Morning Mr. Hard On.” Like fellow Athenian Daniel Hutchens, he walked that fine line between the light and the dark. That magic lyrical twilight that you can’t quite put your finger on, but one that makes all the difference. Read Chesnutt’s lyrics; listen to his songs. A musician, he tread in the Southern Gothic literary tradition of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, but in the vein of contemporaries Harry Crews, Larry Brown and William Gay. Chesnutt wrote about what he knew; the new South, one struggling with its identity – half rooted in the present and half in the past.
Following a pair of critically well-received albums for New West Records, Silver Lake and Ghetto Bells, Chesnutt resurfaced in 2007 with the type of late-period album that not only revitalizes long-time listeners, but draws in new ones as well. North Star Deserter was the result of Chesnutt collaborating with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Thee Silver Mt. Zion and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It was a dark, challenging record that truly gave Chesnutt’s lyrics a powerful backdrop unlike any previous recording. He would take time to record another collaboration, the more light-hearted and whimsical Dark Developments with Elf Power in 2008, but would return to his North Star Deserter collaborators for 2009’s astounding At the Cut.
Every bit its predecessor’s equal, if not its better, At The Cut found Chesnutt in rare lyrical form – dissecting his usual themes of mortality and existence with amazing precision. From opener “Coward” and its powerful sonics while Chesnutt dictates about “the courage of the coward,” to closer “Granny” and its short vignettes of actual interactions between Chesnutt and his late grandmother based on a dream that he had, the album is a sonic and thematic triumph. Now, in the wake of Chesnutt’s suicide, one of the album’s best songs has also taken on a different tone. “Flirted With You All My Life” was, as Vic explained it in an interview we conducted earlier this year, “about being a suicide. I’ve attempted suicide a couple of times and I think about things such as that. [People who attempt suicide] have a kind of love/hate relationship with death. I do, in some ways. That’s what I say in the song — ‘tease me with your sweet relief.’ The song is about realizing that I don’t want to die. I want to live.” A song that seemed to point to a triumph over Death’s call, instead now reads like a lost promise.
Vic’s last tour before his death was with the North Star Deserter/At The Cut studio band promoting the At the Cut album. On numerous nights of the tour, they brought an amazing and jaw-dropping set of songs to bear on the audience. Again in the interview he described working with the band as “one of the most incredible experiences, musically, I’ve ever had. The power is like a locomotive or something.” Seeing the band live, he wasn’t kidding. It was one of the best concert experiences of 2009 to go along with one of its finest albums. Talking with Vic was always a pleasure, too. In interviews, he was genuine and forthright in the way he spoke of his turbulent life – in person, he was a kind and friendly man who was approachable to his fans. He will be greatly missed. words/ j gage & j neas
+ Musician Kristin Hersh has set up a donation website on behalf of Chesnutt’s family in tribute to the artist. 100% of all funds raised will go to Vic’s family.