Magazine cover image by Anton Stankowski, 1935
You may have heard, but Georgia songwriter Vic Chesnutt passed away on Christmas day after a prolonged battle with health issues and financial problems. His passing may or may not have been due to an intentional or accidental overdose of muscle relaxants. It seems like a sad end for a man who was an orphan as a child and disabled for life in a car accident at age 18 - Chesnutt was a well-respected talent who, in most circumstances, deserved a better hand than the one he was dealt.
Like a lot of people, I first heard of Vic Chesnutt through R.E.M. - I was an R.E.M. superfan in the early '90s, and I would check out any artist the band recommended. When they had Vic Chesnutt open for them on a tour during this period, my ears pricked up. I was appalled when I found out that R.E.M. fans treated the wheelchair-bound Chesnutt poorly during this tour - his songs were routinely drowned out by a chorus of "boos" from the crowd as he played, and he sometimes came out on stage with a preemptively self-deprecating sign around his neck reading, "I suck." I was pretty indignant on Chesnutt's behalf and disappointed in R.E.M. fans generally - a college friend once started to recount an R.E.M. show he'd been to where a "weird wheelchair guy" played a terrible opening set, and I told him that Vic Chesnutt is a great songwriter and that he (my friend) was an idiot for not giving Chesnutt's music a chance.
Of course, I didn't know what I was talking about. My dirty little secret was that, because of all the stories, I'd never given Chesnutt's music a chance either. I was worried that maybe the sign he made was right and he did actually suck. But when I heard "Until the Led" on a CMJ sampler, though, my trepidation went away - I'd heard that his album with the band Lambchop, The Salesman and Bernadette, was accessible, but I wasn't expecting the buoyant, horn-embellished pop of "Until the Led". I picked up The Salesman and Bernadette and immediately gained an appreciation for Chesnutt's interesting voice and darkly witty writing style. I dug the CD out today - it's been a while since I listened to it - and it's as good as I remember it being.
Vic Chesnutt was 45 years old at the time of his death.
"Until the Led" by Vic Chesnutt