Vic Chesnutt: Singer and songwriter whose work tackled issues of mortality

A cult figure for the last two decades and a favourite of critics and fellow musicians like REM's Michael Stipe, who discovered him and produced his first two albums, the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt drew on his own experiences to make some of the most affecting and haunting music to come out of the alternative American scene.

A paraplegic since crashing his car while drunk in 1983, Chesnutt performed in a wheelchair and sang in a high, plaintive voice while strumming on an acoustic guitar. He was a prolific writer and toured often, headlining his own shows solo or backed by a band, and opening for the likes of Bob Mould or Jonathan Richman. His songs were full of self-loathing but also contained humour, and tackled death and suicide with a disarming frankness, most poignantly on "Flirted With You All My Life", the pivotal track on At The Cut, his last album. Indeed, he had attempted suicide several times. In interviews this year, the gifted musician admitted he faced mounting medical bills of well over $50,000, and the possibility of losing his home, and that he had been uninsurable for years. Last week, he took an intentional overdose of muscle relaxants and fell into a coma. He died on Christmas Day.

Born James Victor Chesnutt in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, he was adopted and raised in Zebulon, Georgia. His maternal grandfather, a semi-professional musician known as Sleepy Carter, taught him to play guitar, while a grandmother wrote poetry. A precocious child, he composed his first song at the age of five, and enjoyed listening to the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. He pronounced himself an atheist when he was 13, which didn't go down well in a staunchly Evangelical Christian small town. "I bumped up with these fuckers my whole time there," he told The Independent in 2003. "Sometimes it felt great to be at war with them. But I knew I needed to go somewhere else."

In his teens he played trumpet in a cover band called Sundance then joined various new wave outfits on guitar and keyboards. He also drank far too much, including the night when he crashed his car in 1983. "I was a jerk, I was driving drunk. I did it. I pretty much accepted it right off the bat. Like, 'What, did you expect anything else out of your life?' I never even felt much horror, really. I was more fascinated, in a sick way. I felt like, 'Oh well. This puts a whole new spin on things,'" he said about the fact that he emerged from a coma to be told he was paraplegic, with some sensation in his legs but unable to walk.

Chesnutt didn't feel sorry for himself and, since the accident had affected his hands, made adjustments to his guitar-playing. The disability changed his outlook on life and began to inform his writing. He moved first to Nashville, where he shoplifted The Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry, containing poems by Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Steven Crane and Emily Dickinson, which provided further inspiration, and then to Athens, Georgia in 1984. He was supposed to study English, but, as he put it, ended up "hanging out with poets and painters and mystics and punk rockers."

After briefly joining a group called the La-Di-Das he started appearing solo at the 40 Watt Club, where he was spotted by Stipe, who called him "an acerbic reporter on the events of the town" and determined to record at least one Chesnutt album before the singer-songwriter drank himself to death. Indeed, Chesnutt only went on the wagon in 2001. "I just love intoxication," said the musician, who also campaigned to make marijuana legal. "It's empowering, because it takes you out of here, into something else. You become someone ... other."

Stipe's sympathetic production, and the obvious quality of the material featured on Little, Chesnutt's 1988 debut, recorded for $100 in one afternoon, and West Of Rome, the 1991 follow-up, brought the singer-songwriter a cult following in the US and beyond. In 1994, he was the subject of a PBS documentary directed by Peter Sillen, entitled Speed Racer: Welcome To The World Of Vic Chesnutt. Two years later, he had a small role as the wheelchair-bound Terence in Sling Blade, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Also in 1996, acts such as Garbage, Kristin Hersh, REM, Smashing Pumpkins and Madonna covered several of Chesnutt's compositions for an album entitled Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation, to benefit the Sweet Relief Fund and highlight the predicament of US musicians who cannot afford health care.

"It was a really exciting time," he recalled. "All these rock stars were singing my songs and it was fun. And it always makes you feel good to think that your songs can help other people. I know people who benefited from Sweet Relief who were gravely ill, and it helped them keep alive. That's something that my music couldn't do otherwise. I mean, I can enrich people spiritually or whatever, or tickle them, make them think they're not so alone in the world, but to actually buy them medicine is pretty great."

Released by Sony, the Gravity Of The Situation collection raised Chesnutt's profile considerably. Later that year, he signed to the US major Capitol and issued About To Choke, the fifth and the most accessible of the 15 albums he made for a variety of mostly independent labels. Chesnutt drew high praise from many of his contemporaries and collaborated with several alternative acts, including Widespread Panic, another Athens band with whom he recorded two albums – Nine High A Pallet in 1995 and Co-Balt in 2002 – under the name brute., and the Nashville-based alt country group Lambchop on 1998's The Salesman And Bernadette, which also featured a guest vocal by Emmylou Harris on the track "Woodrow Wilson". He also worked with the experimental guitarist Bill Frisell and the session-keyboardist and composer Van Dyke Parks on Ghetto Bells in 2005. On 2007's North Star Deserter and this year's At The Cut, he was backed by members of the Montreal bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Guy Picciotto of the Washington DC hardcore group Fugazi.

Chesnutt could be contrary but also endearing. He raged at the world, in song and in person. "I am ambivalent towards human beings," he said in 2003. "It's ugly, but true. I am always at extremes. Maybe that's what powers me. I can go from 'I'm a lover' to 'I'm toxic trash'. When I remember there's a whole giant universe out there, then I feel good. It's when I look inside me that these extremes vibrate so hard. If I look at a list of the things I've done, it's fantastic to me. I didn't even expect to be alive."

Pierre Perrone

James Victor Chesnutt, singer, songwriter, guitarist: born Jacksonville, Florida 12 November 1964; married Tina Whatley; died Athens, Georgia 25 December 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: C# Developer - Kent - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: C# and .Net Developer - n...

Guru Careers: Digital Marketing Exec / Online Marketing Executive

£35 - 40k: Guru Careers: Our client has a new role for a Digital Marketing Exe...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'