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Tucson Weekly Toasting Chesnutt

Southern Gent Vic Chesnutt Is One Of The Finest Living American Songwriters, Bar None

By Stephen Seigel

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  QUESTION: WHAT DO Aaron Neville, Larry Flynt, Jane's Addiction, Robert Mitchum, Deborah Norville, and '80s Christian metal band Stryper have in common?

Answer: Absolutely nothing, except that they all receive mention by name in the songs of Vic Chesnutt, one of the greatest living American songwriters out there.

It's something he does a lot, this use of proper names. And just as he uses the names of famous people, readily identified, he also writes about obscure people who mean a lot to him personally. "I often find myself plucking these names and using them as a touchstone in my songs," he explains from his home in Athens, Georgia. "If I know who they are, I can just kind of tack 'em on there and use 'em as a springboard in my imagination to anchor to something real. Even if others don't understand, it's a tangible reference for me, in my mind."

And apparently, he wants to keep it that way. When asked who one of these un-famous touchstones is (Steve Willoughby, the titular character of a song from 1992's amazing West of Rome on Texas Hotel records), Chesnutt gets uncomfortable. "Oh, that's a hard one. Um...he's a hero of mine, and now he's in jail." So he's a friend? "No, not a friend. I worshipped him from afar. Leave it at that."

More often than not, these references are used to comic effect ("Stryper loves Jesus/And I love a girl"); and just as often, that humor seems like a camouflage to the sadness underlying most of his songs. A funny line is merely one of dozens of brush strokes which, ultimately, produce a large and complex composition. The fact that humor is present at all can seem revelatory in this context, but it's a fence that Vic straddles with ease. It simply comes naturally.

"That's very important in my songs: don't know whether to laugh or cry. It gives energy to my songs, somehow, and it gives energy to me when I'm writing it if I don't know whether to bum out or giggle. I'm a cynical person. I've said this before, but if I got a noose around my neck, I'm about to hang myself. It's a funny act and I would probably giggle at that."

While he despises sympathy, Chesnutt has surely earned his cynicism. At the age of 18, he drunk-drove his car into a ditch, flipping it over, and paralyzing most of his body in the process. An avid and aspiring singer/songwriter/guitarist, he was devastated to find he could no longer play guitar. He began focusing on writing songs using his keyboard and analog synth. "I used the keyboard a little bit before I crashed," he states, matter of factly, "but a lot after. It just was what I could use. I made some crazy, crazy songs."

And then one day it happened: a full year after the accident, at age 19, Vic, an avowed atheist, experienced what can only be termed some kind of religious experience. "Well, I had been tryin' a long time to play guitar, and I couldn't, you know? My fingers just wouldn't do it," he explains. "My left hand just couldn't do it. And then one day I took a bunch of acid, and all night long, you know, I was just...trippin'. And then in the mornin', I picked up the guitar, and I could play. A few chords. And I wrote a few songs. So, I could play guitar from then on." When asked if he understands the magnitude of such an incident, Chesnutt replies modestly, "Well, I can't explain it, really. I mean, I tried to play the day before and couldn't, and then there it was."

These days Vic also appears to be an outspoken proponent of marijuana. In addition to having a song on the newly released pro-legalization comp album, Hempilation 2 (Capricorn), England's Mojo magazine recently reported that during a show there, Chesnutt called for members of the audience to toss "a big fat joint" onstage. Indeed, at a performance I witnessed in March of last year, at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, Vic was literally begging the audience to get him high. (Let me backtrack here: At the beginning of my conversation with Vic, I had mentioned that I'd met him twice before. The first time was at the Hotel Congress a few years ago, where we had what I thought was a very meaningful conversation. Vic didn't remember. But when I told him I was the guy who saw to his "needs" in Austin, he greeted me like a long-lost friend: "Excellent! I love you.") That Austin show was also remarkable because it was probably the only time Chesnutt did karaoke versions of his own songs.

His newest release, The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn), was finished being recorded by the time of the conference, so Vic decided to preview the entire album, in order, to the lucky audience. The first problem was this: Vic's backing band on the new album was the 12-piece Nashville combo Lambchop, whose members recorded the material over five consecutive weekends to accommodate the schedule of their day jobs. Obviously, the band couldn't make the trek to Austin to play only one show. Not to worry--Vic had all the backing tracks loaded onto a DAT that he would sing over, karaoke-style. The result was surreal, with Vic holding the mike like an old-time crooner, belting out his beautiful new tunes with the biggest sound he'd ever had behind him. And there he was, up on stage, all alone.

About two-thirds through the show, however, the tape player started cutting out. After about 30 seconds of consecutive malfunction, Vic finally gave up and called for his acoustic guitar. This last part of the show was simply spellbinding, with just Vic and his guitar weaving tales quietly and intimately, the way he'd done eight years prior, when Michael Stipe called him and told him he had an extra day in the studio and would Vic want to come down and record some stuff? He recorded his landmark debut album, Little (Texas Hotel), on that very day, start to finish, in one session.

It's also the way he's performing on his current tour. "I'm enjoying playing solo a great deal," he says. "I think my audience seems to dig it 'cause we can have a nice little chat. I love it 'cause I can really open up and belt it out." He is, however, hopeful that his old friends from Giant Sand/Calexico will join him onstage at the Tucson show. (Calexico recently served as opening act for the aforementioned European tour). "Oh my God, John (Convertino) is the best drummer in the world, and the sweetest heart in the world. Joey (Burns) too. And Howe (Gelb) is just mightier than they make 'em. They broke the mold. If they did (get up and play with me), that would be the greatest thing to ever happen to me."

Vic's been on the other side of such praise, as well. In 1996, the Sweet Relief organization, which raises money for uninsured musicians in need of health care, released its second fundraising compilation album, Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, subtitled The Songs of Vic Chesnutt (Sony). The remarkable album contained Chesnutt songs as interpreted by the likes of such marquee acts as R.E.M., Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, Live, and Madonna, in a duet with her brother in-law, Joe Henry.

So what's it like hearing Madonna cover one of your songs? "That was freaky," Vic answers. "But that track was really beautiful. They were all amazing. It was really great to hear my buddies rockin' on my tunes. I hope we raised a lot of money to help people. That's what really makes me feel good, 'cause I write these songs for selfish reasons probably. And people are always tellin' me, 'Oh, you helped me through this or that,' with my songs, but then this is like tangible evidence where money was raised and given to people who couldn't afford to go into the hospital and things like that. It's great."

Takes greatness to know greatness, Vic.

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