Vic Chesnutt Biography

A biography of wheelchair-bound singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt from Athens, Georgia; article discusses his early years and his albums

Vic Chesnutt was born in Florida in 1964 and raised in Zebulon, Georgia. In his teens, Chesnutt joined a cover band called Sundance as a trumpet player. He made about $200 a week playing in various seedy bars, which gave him the freedom of not having to work a day job. In 1983 at age 18, Chesnutt became partially paralyzed after drunkenly driving into a ditch in Atlanta; this mishap left him dependent on a wheelchair. Ever since, Chesnutt has been confined physically but has blossomed creatively.

In fact, the paralyzation actually helped provide a certain education for Chesnutt. He hadn't read many books before the accident, but soon he began doing so vigorously. After a move to Nashville--he eventually went back to Georgia to live in Athens--Chesnutt starting reading poetry regularly, from Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman to W.H. Auden. Around this same time, Chesnutt joined the band The La Di Das and also met Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who would have a major impact on Chesnutt's early solo albums. Chesnutt began doing solo shows in the mid '80s, and in 1988 he went into the studio with Stipe to work on what would become Little. Stipe produced this album and also Chesnutt's second, West of Rome. Both are on the California indy label Texas Hotel.

Whereas Chesnutt's songwriting, vocals, and guitar are focal points of Little, more of a band element exists on West of Rome, released in 1992. Chesnutt is joined by, among others, his wife Tina on bass and Jeffrey Richards on drums. The music and songwriting are more refined on West of Rome than on the raw Little, and Chesnutt masterfully intertwines desolation and desperation with sometimes subtle, sometimes in-your-face, humor. With the release of West of Rome, the music world (at least, a good portion of the underground) began to take note of Chesnutt's work, as evidenced by New York filmmaker Pete Sillen's 1992 documentary on Chesnutt entitled Speed Racer.

Chesnutt's 1993 album Drunk is aptly titled because he was, in fact, plastered during the sessions, which were recorded in Georgia and Washington, DC. He collaborated mainly with Rob Veal and Scott Stuckey for the record. (There is also a guest vocal appearance by Syd Straw.) Juxtaposing drunken rock numbers with songs of lighter, more fantastical, intoxicated reverie, Chesnutt throws together an album lacking cohesion but full of emotion, a musical bender.

Chesnutt released two albums in 1995: Is The Actor Happy? and Nine High A Pallet. For Is The Actor Happy? Chesnutt was joined by his new bandmates The Scared Skiffle Group: Tina on bass, Alex McManus on guitar, and Jimmy Davidson on drums. Actor has somewhat of a grunge rock feel to it because around the time of recording, Chesnutt and The Scared Skiffle Group were playing rock shows with the "alternative" band Live. Nine High A Pallet, recorded under the name "Brute" by Chesnutt and the Athens band Widespread Panic, is another album indicative of Chesnutt's rock style of the time.

Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation""The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, a benefit album for musicians with financial and other difficulties, came out in 1996. Such household names as Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., Live, and Soul Asylum perform Chesnutt tunes on the album, giving him wider recognition.

In fact, Chesnutt was becoming so well known that in 1996, he received a major record label deal. Thus, About To Choke was released on Capitol Records in 1996. Chesnutt credited opening for the band Cowboy Junkies in '96 as a major factor in making this record because of his opportunity to write new songs and immediately try them live. About To Choke unites all Chesnutt's musical styles, from pungent rock to quiet, stark folk. He connects the songs on About to Choke through a common theme mentioned in the liner notes: "through death, life is nourished."

The Salesman And Bernadette, released in 1998 on Capricorn Records, is Chesnutt's masterpiece. He worked with backing band Lambchop, a 12-14 piece alternative country group from Nashville, on this musical tale of a down-on-his-luck salesman seeking physical satisfaction and spiritual guidance from Bernadette (the voice of whom is Emmylou Harris in the song "Woodrow Wilson"). The music takes elements of folk, country, blues, lounge jazz, and soul and incorporates horns, a vibraphone, and various percussion instruments. Chesnutt elegantly and eloquently portrays the human condition through humor, darkness, and innuendo with the richest songwriting of his career.

Merriment, a year 2000 release from Backburner, is a collaboration of Chesnutt and Kelly and Nikki Keneipp. The Keneipps composed the music, and Chesnutt wrote songs from the music. The results are dreamy acoustic guitar- and piano-based tunes in which Chesnutt sings of both the stately and absurd (sometimes one and the same) with pleasant perversion.

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