If ever there was a singer’s singer, it’s much-copied Athens tunesmith Vic Chesnutt. One of the few contemporary songwriters who can wear the loaded badge “poet” without it sounding squirmily naive (or just plain irresponsible), Chesnutt has fashioned a career crafting wonder-nuggets of verse.
Whether presented in their raw state — as on About to Choke (Capitol, 1996) — or submerged in thick, cottony orchestral arrangements — as on his latest disc, the storybook panorama The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn, 1998) — Chestnutt’s songs seem saddled with a strange, sweet life of their own, like ants tottering under cake crumbs. Many are threaded with the kind of bleak but beautifully presented truths that make for instant classics.
Sure, Tom Waits has become a better-known cult hero, doing the same sort of thing. But can he boast a voice that never grows tiresome on repeated listens? Chesnutt’s characteristic restraint in the face of “heavy” imagery (“And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath/From over his beaming momma’s shoulder/He’s staring at the wordly wonders/That stretch just as far as he can see/But he’ll stop staring when he’s older,” he offers gently in About to Choke’s “New Town,” without a drop of undue weight) makes him seem a kind of neglected prince of the down-and-out anthem.
But don’t be fooled: Chesnutt’s peers, at least, have long reveled in the singer’s artistry. In the mid-’90s, Columbia Records released a tribute album of Chesnutt’s songs called Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation — intended to benefit musicians in medical or financial distress — which featured renditions from a delightfully varied sampling of fans that included Madonna, R.E.M., Soul Asylum and Hootie and the Blowfish. (In a January 1998 interview in Mojo magazine, Chesnutt remarked memorably, “If Jewel had sung on [Sweet Relief II] I probably would’ve committed suicide. Everyone thinks she’s the greatest, but I know 300 better singer-songwriters who still have jobs cooking biscuits.”) The performer has toured with a similarly unlikely host of musicians, among them Bob Mould (late of Husker Du and Sugar) and histrionic rockers Live. Around the same time, he recorded Nine High a Pallet (Capricorn Records, 1995) with jamsters Widespread Panic, under the collective moniker “brute.”
Chesnutt grew up in Zebulon, Ga., where early influences included Charley Pride, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. A near-fatal car accident at age 18 rendered him partially paralyzed, and, after some healing time, newly reflective: “I didn’t start reading until after the accident,” he recalls in his biography. “Before that I couldn’t sit still long enough. … [But then] I shoplifted the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and stayed up nights reading it. Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Steven Crane. And Emily Dickinson. I loved her nursery rhyme rhythms. The first poets I read were considered squares, I guess — the ones that were outside of the cool Bohemian art crowd. But that kind of power — poetic power — is what I pray for.”
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe discovered Chesnutt (who was, by then, Athens-based) in 1985 and encouraged him to start recording music. In 1990 the singer released his first record, Little, on indie label Texas Hotel.
Like any musician worth his strings, Chestnutt has mined a resplendent variety of moods in his seven-album career. His 1992 release, West of Rome (Texas Hotel), is considered by many to be his seminal recording, but it hardly stood in the way of further experimentation: The very next year, the singer released Drunk — recorded, true to its name, with Chesnutt well into his cups.
Although Chesnutt was not available for an interview in time for this article, The Salesman and Bernadette is a cornucopia of delectable passages which serve perfectly in lieu of quotes. Cradled in swirling musical accompaniment, Chesnutt revels in “poems” like this: (from “Parade”): “Where did you go after the parade?/You never even appeared to enjoy it./I came out of it with a slight experience, drinking, and howling at the natives./You’re great at disappearing. …/Remember that time you took me to see Harold and Maude ’cause I didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘catharsis’?/We are busy weaklings poking around for reasons!/We are happy little heathens! /It’s time we just both admit it!”
Grey Eagle benefit
On Saturday, July 3, Jimmy Landry will host a benefit for the Grey Eagle (to be held at the club) to help defray the considerable expense incurred in opening the new venue (located at 185 Clingman Ave. in Asheville’s River District). Landry, quick to point out all the benefits the Grey Eagle has hosted in the past — such as the one for the Western North Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitation Center — avows with feeling, “It’s time we helped them out.” Chuck Brodsky, Lynn & Chris Rosser, Leigh Hilger, Valorie, Charles Middleton, Beth Wood, Dana Cooper, Bill Mize, Suzanne Schmitt, Ken Bonfield & Joe Ebel, and Molly Warren & Larry Hoskinson will take the stage, for a show he promises will be a “musical joyfest.” The show starts at 8 p.m., and a $10 minimum donation is requested. Call 232-5800 for updates and additional info.