Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Salesman

By Mark Jordan

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Vic Chesnutt would like you to know he is neither the salesman nor Bernadette.

“I wanted to alert people that this album was not about myself,” says Chesnutt, explaining why his latest, called The Salesman and Bernadette, has the tag “Fiction” printed in the upper left corner of the album jacket.

It’s a necessary disclaimer for the Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter whose songs of loss and heartbreak so often seem like the most delicate passages of a diary being sung out loud.

Born in Florida and raised in Pike County, Georgia, Chesnutt learned guitar from his country-picking grandfather, whose instrument he still plays. His music career seemed to come to a premature end in 1983, however, when a drunk Chesnutt crashed his car into a ditch, an accident that left him a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair.

But Chesnutt kept playing and singing. He enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens where he played in a succession of groups. With his quirky but catchy songwriting style, he soon became a favorite on Athens’ fabled music scene. He regularly drew crowds of devoted fans to his solo shows at the 40 Watt Club, including R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe.

It was Stipe who first coaxed Chesnutt into the studio, producing the singer/songwriter’s first two albums, Little (1990) and West of Rome (1992). Chesnutt went on to record two more critically well-received collections, Drunk (1994) and Is the Actor Happy? (1995) as well as the 1996 collaboration with Atlanta jam band Widespread Panic, Nine High A Pallet.

But it wasn’t until he was chosen as the subject for the musicians’ charity project Sweet Relief in 1995 that Chesnutt’s strength as a songwriter was revealed to a large audience. Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (The Songs of Vic Chesnutt) featured admirers such as Madonna, R.E.M, and Smashing Pumpkins performing Chesnutt compositions.

The Salesman and Bernadette, his first record for Atlanta-based Capricorn Records after being dropped by Capitol following his major-label debut About To Choke (1996), again finds Chesnutt teaming with admirers of his dark and painful vision. He is backed on the record by the cult-favorite avant-country outfit Lambchop, whose eclectic instrumentation helps propel this song cycle about a salesman’s despairing love life.

For Chesnutt, a prolific writer, the album’s story arc was a way to give the record focus.

“It was just one way for me to figure out which songs to record,” he explains. “The theme was an exercise to decide which songs to put on a record. It’s always hard for me to figure out which songs to record because I have a lot. … It’s not really a song cycle even though it is. It was in my mind, but I cleverly made it so it wouldn’t have to be.”

And what is the story of the salesman and Bernadette?

“This guy, who I set up in the song ‘Duty Free,’ he’s a salesman. I don’t know what the heck kind of salesman he is,” the writer explains. “He had a marriage when he was young. He got a divorce. That’s what ‘Until the Led’ is about. Then he got a job, changed his life, started being a salesman, started travelling around, met this Bernadette character, had a relationship with her, and lost her. It’s all about loss and longing. And it ends in the songs ‘Square Room’ to ‘Old Hotel’ in realizing – years later in a hotel room thinking about Bernadette and his life – an epiphany.”

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