Cracked Actor

With new album, Vic Chesnutt moves from lonely troubadour to pop-art master

There is a moment during "See You Around," the final track of Vic Chesnutt's 1996 album About to Choke, where he sings "I must admit I'm flattered by your consecration/It's a mind-numbing spine-chilling/But nevertheless heartwarming gesture/As you make your advances so clumsily/I'll save us both the hassle and leave."

It must have seemed a fitting valediction to Chesnutt, who, during a tour for the record, left his wife and band stranded in Milwaukee, taking off with the van and tour money, and proceeded to a seedy Florida hotel room where he spent the next few days contemplating suicide. Although his behavior was fueled in part by an undiagnosed and painful kidney stone, Chesnutt's near plummet into the abyss was not his first such trip.

Chesnutt is a man who has long trod the line between life and death, sanity and normality--it's a large part of his work, and what has made him one of the most compelling phenomena to emerge from the American musical underground in the last decade. One senses that he values his own ability to flirt with the edges of emotions and blur the distinctions between tragedy and comedy.

"I hope with my stuff that looking at the lyrics or even after hearing it, you're still not sure how to feel about the songs, you know, whether to be happy or sad," Chesnutt says, on the eve of a tour to support his new album, The Salesman and Bernadette.

No profile of Chesnutt fails to touch on--or would be complete without mentioning--"the accident." A native of Pike County, Georgia, Chesnutt was an aspiring 18-year-old musician when a drunken car crash on Easter morning 1983 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Doomed to spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair, he recovered enough mobility in his hands to strum a guitar, and he returned to performing. Playing with a number of pop and punk bands in and around the growing Athens music scene, Chesnutt eventually began appearing on his own, singing his brand of idiosyncratic neo-folk.

He developed a growing reputation as a local curiosity, as well as a massive drinker. Regular appearances at Athens' famed 40 Watt Club brought him to the attention of local hero Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who was so taken with Chesnutt's singular songcraft that he helped secure him a deal with the tiny Texas Hotel label, even producing his first two albums, Little and West of Rome.

If it seemed a bit unlikely that Stipe (an artist who's been fairly derided for plunging alternative music into its current state of lyrical decay by selling millions of albums full of "mumbled non sequiturs") would champion an often complex--even cryptic--wordsmith like Chesnutt, then what happened next was even more surprising.

The intervening years saw Chesnutt release two more critically lauded collections of songs--including the stellar 1995 album Is the Actor Happy?--but more significantly, word of his talent began to spread among artists and music aficionados. Indie heroes and pop stars alike sang his praises in print. He was given slots opening for artists ranging from respected punk icons like Bob Mould to mall-ternative bands like Live; and Hootie and the Blowfish even covered one of his songs during their performance on MTV's Unplugged.

In 1996, things took an even more dramatic turn for Chesnutt. It was the early part of that year that saw the release of a benefit/tribute album in his honor. Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation brought together many of the biggest names in the rock and pop worlds, all of whom were eager to pay homage to the unassuming Chesnutt. Along with hometown backers R.E.M., artists ranging from Garbage to the Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (in a duet with her brother-in-law Joe Henry) adopted the laconic Georgian as something of a cause celebre. In the album's liner notes, Chesnutt was given almost embarrassingly glowing praise by many of the artists.

For Chesnutt, the unusual outpouring of attention, if somewhat discomforting, was still greatly appreciated. "I am really proud of that, very much so," he says. "I think we helped a lot of people, and it was fantastic to hear all these people singing my songs. Even now I'm still very proud about that experience," says Chesnutt.

Instead of basking in the glow of his newfound celebrity, or succumbing to the easy temptation of making an "accessible" album of folk-pop, Chesnutt went the other way. For Choke, his major-label debut on Capitol, Chesnutt endured an agonizing recording process before producing an album that hearkened back to his 1994 effort Drunk (until then the high-water mark in Chesnutt's discography). The bulk of the material found Chesnutt alone, with little instrumentation, alternating between the themes of melancholy and humor--frequently in the same song and often in the same line. In the autobiographical "Hot Seat," Chesnutt turned his focus toward the tragedy of his accident with the kind of acute lyrical intensity that left listeners confused as to whether they should laugh or cry at a verse like "Ventolin and Vivarin and Primatene/Secret tequila shots and a patch of morphine/In mourning and in the throes/What a great day to come out of a coma."

For the uninitiated, Choke must have left a strange first impression. With Chesnutt's Southern eclecticism on full display throughout the record, critics and fellow artists raved, but the masses stayed away in droves. For his part, Chesnutt jokingly says that the album sold "the least amount of records in Capitol history." But even so, Chesnutt is proud of the finished product.

"I was happy with the way a lot of it turned out. I think mainly because it encompassed all of my other records put together," he says. "I didn't try and do that, but I think that's the way it came out. It's actually kind of funny in that respect."

It was during the tour supporting Choke that Chesnutt, spurred on by the pain of his illness and rapidly deteriorating spirits, pulled his disappearing act, leaving his wife, Tina, and his Nashville-based touring group, Lambchop, stranded in the Midwest. If his actions left those around him in a state of panic, it was nothing compared to the intense soul-searching that Chesnutt was experiencing on the Florida shores. Possibly realizing that his demons were more imagined than real, or perhaps feeling that he was on the cusp of some sort of artistic breakthrough, Chesnutt came to his senses and decided to head back home to Athens instead of rolling into the murky waters of the Atlantic. It was then that he began writing and assembling songs for his latest and most ambitious release, The Salesman and Bernadette.

While the simple childlike images that adorn the record's cover may fool some, The Salesman and Bernadette is no mere musical line drawing, but rather pop art of the highest order. Creating the character of the "Salesman," Chesnutt navigates his self-effacing protagonist through a small and sometimes sad world of lonely hotel rooms, dirty magazines and empty streets, all the while chasing his elusive lover, "Bernadette" (who makes a brief appearance in the form of a vocal cameo by Emmylou Harris). There are hints that the sloppy and befuddled "Salesman" is based on Chesnutt himself. As a songwriter, Chesnutt has always been brave enough to reveal himself to the point of nakedness, but by assuming the somewhat anonymous persona of the "Salesman," he's able to focus with surgical precision on the small details that have made his songs so engrossing. Whether he's describing an "Eisenhower ashtray" in "Woodrow Wilson" or "the Stone Age fax machine" of "Mysterious Tunnel," Chesnutt's sharp eye for the seemingly inconsequential only strengthens his examination of the larger issues at hand--helping deliver what the album's cover promises to be: "a lovely story of loss and longing and sloppy satori."

While The Salesman and Bernadette is a concept album only in the most basic sense, Chesnutt admits that the idea of such a project scared him enough that it forced him to reconsider his plan to include a detailed set of liner notes. "I had pages and pages of notes explaining the story, but then at the end I shied away from that," he says. "I started finding that people had totally different impressions of what it was about. Like with Kurt [Wagner, of Lambchop], he would tell me what he was thinking and it was totally different than what I had intended, but then I thought, 'Wow, that's great too.'"

Using the term "concept album" for Salesman is not only unfair, but more than a little inaccurate, in light of the way Chesnutt put the project together. "It's always been difficult for me to decide what songs to record on an album because I've got a lot that over the years have just stacked up," he says. "And a lot of them I've always wanted to record, but it's just hard to choose. But I knew for this record I wanted to record the song 'Duty Free' and I knew I wanted to record the song 'Bernadette'--for some reason those two songs I was sure of. And then when I saw them side by side, I thought, 'They must have a relationship--how can I elaborate on that relationship?' So I started choosing songs from my past that did that."

From the opening horns of "Duty Free" to the pedal steel of "Old Hotel," it's clear that Chesnutt's no longer the lonely troubadour playing quirky songs in a darkened room. With Salesman, he has recast himself as a great American pop storyteller--a postpunk hybrid of Tom Waits and Van Dyke Parks with a healthy dose of Southern consciousness thrown into the mix. The early reaction to the record has focused on its lyrical quality and narrative structure, drawing favorable comparisons to early 20th-century literary works like Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. While certainly not averse to those comparisons, Chesnutt views the project as having a more cinematic rooting.

"To me this record is more like a French movie, more so than, say, a novel," he says. "At least that's the way I saw it. I expect it to hit you like a French movie. It has certain imagery that kind of reminds me of that in a way."

Maybe the biggest surprise about The Salesman and Bernadette is that it triumphs on a musical level as well. The backing by friends and frequent road companions Lambchop, the 13-piece (or sometimes more) alternative country "big band," infuses Chesnutt's songs with varied arrangements and musical punctuation. Lambchop's versatility allows Chesnutt to play with a number of unique and heretofore unexplored musical styles from Stax/Volt soul to Preservation Hall jazz to gentle country rhythms. For Chesnutt, the departure from his usually understated musical approach was especially liberating.

"I love to make all kinds of music and just experiment with sound," he says. "And Lambchop is nothing if not an experiment in sound. And since half the songs are old and half the songs are new, I wrote the newer ones with Lambchop in mind specifically."

For Chesnutt, the new album is a first step in his advance toward a broader, more ambitious future. He is already in the planning stages for a number of possible collaborations. Currently, he's involved in writing an album with some of his local Athens compatriots.

"They're writing the music, and I'm putting down the words and singing the melody on it," he says. "It's really been fun because it's so different from what I've done before. I'm trying to turn it into my high school play, my high school musical."

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