Broken-Necked and Atheist 

Songwriter Vic Chesnutt: New South poet with the small-town blues.

On his Web site, Vic Chesnutt has distilled his biography into a series of simple lower-case phrases like "age 13 felt the need to listen to rock'n'roll" and "age 17 met johnny cash." "car crash" is sandwiched somewhere between "fired because refused to tuck in shirt" and "writing vacuous pop songs." Yet, for most fans, the wreck that left Chesnutt paralyzed is a defining element of this musician's life.

It happened on a lonely stretch of road in Pike County, just outside Zebulon, Georgia. Chesnutt was 19 years old, a frustrated young man who "had a completely different set of beliefs," according to interviews. Six years before the wreck, already emotionally affected by the small-mindedness and racism of his rural life, he'd rejected Christianity right in the middle of a church service. The crash, in more ways than one, served as an emblematic ejection from Zebulon: Chesnutt escaped to the nearby college town of Athens, but he broke his neck in the process.

A trumpet player since age 9, Chesnutt was given a guitar "for christmas 1980 to help me get over lennon's murder." Around that time, he began gigging with a group called Sundance, a cover band that played a rowdy Pike County roadhouse every weekend. Just before graduation, Chesnutt's bio explains, he "discovered the new music" of Elvis Costello, the Jam, Nick Lowe, R.E.M., and the Replacements. After his wreck, he claims, he "can't play guitar or trumpet but discovers a whole new understanding of music."

Confined to a wheelchair in Athens, Chesnutt met "the bohemian types," "suddenly [became] a solo artist," and went to New York for the first time. He toured with Bob Mould, Live, and Victoria Williams and recorded nine solo albums, several of which Michael Stipe produced. After he was the subject of the Sweet Relief Two tribute album (a disparate crew of superstars including Madonna, Hootie & the Blowfish, and the Smashing Pumpkins presented their takes on his spare songs), Chesnutt landed on Capitol Records for one record, 1996's About To Choke.

All in all, Chesnutt's recorded for seven labels in a dozen years. His latest album, Silver Lake, is on the fledgling indie New West Records. Recorded by the same producer (Mark Howard) in the same location (the Paramour Mansion, in the hills above Silver Lake, California) as Lucinda William's latest, World without Tears, Silver Lake is Vic Chesnutt to the 10th power -- subtly polished so that his always-churning soul can shine right through.

"Forget everything I ever told you," Chesnutt sings on "I'm Through" to open the album. "I'm sure I lied way more than twice/But understand I'm not Emily Post/You know I'm nowhere near that precise." He could be speaking directly to his audience, as an actor might make an onstage aside. But by the chorus, it's clear that this is the ultimate breakup song, Chesnutt's voice -- his most powerful instrument -- swelling over his gentle guitar chords and a swirling Wurlitzer piano.

"I'm through, through, through/Carrying you on my shoulders/And I'm through, through, through/Hiding/And I'm through, through, through living my life for you/Yes I hope for both our sakes/I'm through, through, through," Chesnutt sings on the chorus. Then, cutting through those world-weary lyrics, Chesnutt delivers this gem: "I'm tired of bleeding/For no good reason/Is that so hard to see?"

The key to that concise sentiment might be embedded in his bio, right under "starts strumming." "shoplifts norton anthology of modern poetry. its footnotes were eureka," Chesnutt notes in a barely-there explanation. His offhanded wordplay and remarkable knack for storytelling must come from somewhere deeper: Perhaps he's tapped into the bubbling wellspring beneath the Southern United States which fed writers like Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty.

But like author Larry Brown (an Oxford, Mississippi, native), Chesnutt is definitely a product of the New South. His world is populated with meth addicts, trailer trash, and Wal-Mart employees as well as the dying Gothic gentility of days long past. Chesnutt will be the first to tell you that he's more redneck than poet, a man who grew up hunting rabbits and pounding beers in a less than erudite childhood.

"Wren's Nest" and "Band Camp" revisit Chesnutt's former stomping grounds, as he name-checks places like Ruth's Restaurant in Zebulon and the Key Club in nearby Griffin which he hasn't visited in years. "Oh, so horribly intensely I prayed/Let me evaporate," he croons, "but the dying autumn leaves are beautiful, too."

"After I broke my neck, I symbolically broke my Pike County connection in a way," Chesnutt told journalist David Peisner on a rare visit home last month. "I wanted to move on. I didn't want to reinvent myself so much as I needed to grow," he said, before amending his thoughts. "I'd be embarrassed. I'm all broken-necked and atheist."

Fatalists might be tempted to think that Chesnutt had to sacrifice his body to free his mind. I'll just say that he's one helluva songwriter.



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