Get the man himself on the phone, however, and you find he's having none of it: "Bukowski? I don't get that. We have one thing in common--we've taken a couple drinks. . . . My folks were into easy listening and country, so I just heard what they had. . . . When I met Michael, I was like, 'Who is he and what does he want?'"
Chesnutt--in personality and in his art--is honest, simple, cranky and open. His singing voice is a raw, gnarly thing that wrenches emotion from his songs in quavering whispers and nasal snarls. The music is a spare, acoustic-based blend of folk, white soul and something personal that is not for everybody. In short, what he does is unique. But according to Chesnutt (no relation to country heartthrob Mark Chesnutt), that doesn't make it a big deal.
"It's quirky, you know--idiosyncratic, for sure," he says from a phone somewhere in Nova Scotia. "I am what I am; I wish I was a bit more a lot of the time, but I'm still working on it. I still haven't written the best songs I'm ever going to write. I think soon I'm going to have a breakthrough.
"I think that's the way an artist works. I'm always looking for a breakthrough and epiphanies. I'm always looking for my new religion, because I'm always dissatisfied."
Chesnutt's musical individuality is not the result of any grand plan, an effortless product of overflowing talent. His creativity is borne more out of what he can't do than what he can.
"My guitar playing, I feel like it's bad a lot, and I don't know what to do, and a lot of times I don't know at all what kind of music I want to make, " says the 30-year-old musician. "But I guess it always comes down to me and that acoustic guitar. That's the way I've always done it and probably always will--but, God, I get sick of it. But then sometimes I sit in my living room and I'm playing by myself and I think 'God, this is so beautiful.'"
You can hear equal parts beauty and frustration on Chesnutt's most recent release, 1993's Drunk, a visceral chunk of low-fi music that is the result of a party in south Georgia gone bad. Chesnutt and a couple of friends wanted to have "a weekend away, just go out to the boonies and goof around. We raided this guy's father's liquor cabinet, and I was really drunk and depressed the whole time. We recorded and it sounded good. . . ."
Vic and the boys took the tapes up to legendary Inner Ear Studios in Washington, D.C., to mix and record a bit more with producer/owner Don Zeintara (God, I love Don, he's a great producer," gushes Chesnutt. "He's, like, classy, really classy, always wearing these little shorts and a tee shirt."). Fugazi, Half Japanese and loads of other alternative big names have logged time with Zeintara in the producer's nearly decade and a half of recording.
"I was awestruck from the very beginning at the songs he had, and just his skill, the way he weaves stuff around," says Zeintara of Chesnutt. "The strange way he sings puts you off for about a minute or so, then you start getting into it. The guy has real emotion."
It's emotion that also comes across in Chesnutt's minimal guitar playing; his guitar is, at times, as strong a tool as his voice. "He has a tight-fitting glove and the pick Super Glued to one of the fingers, and that's the way he plays it," Zeintara says. "He's not the most fluid player in the world, but he does come across with a sense that he knows what he's playing, and he's got it under control as much as he can. He's playing what he needs to play, and it all fits in in a strange sort of contorted way."
Tight-fitting glove? Super Glued pick? No, these aren't affectations; a 1987 drunken-driving accident left most of Chesnutt's body paralyzed.
"My hands are fucked up, there is no doubt about that," Chesnutt says flatly. "I'm mostly paralyzed all over from my neck down; one hand is completely paralyzed and the other hand wiggles a little. I can play chords and leads a little, but I'm definitely, whatever you call it . . . I have an injury that affects me. Paralysis is definitely a part of my life."
Chesnutt first performed on disc in 1990 with the Little album, produced by Michael Stipe, who did the job again for 92's West of Rome. Four years ago, Chesnutt was playing gigs in Athens, Georgia, his home of many years, when Stipe stepped in.
"It's a small town, and I guess he saw me a-playin' and talked to me then," recalls Chesnutt. "I've got bad star fright, or whatever you call it, and I was skeptical. 'What's the deal, him saying he liked my music?' I just couldn't believe it. . . . I was skeptical about everything, cause I'm a skeptic, a cynical bastard. But now we're buddies."
The exposure put Chesnutt on the road, where for most of the past three years he's been touring constantly with people like Lou Reed, Bob Mould, and Soul Asylum, with little time spent playing guitar in his Athens living room.
And while it may be easy to lump Chesnutt in with other troubled Southern artists who have drawn inspiration from lives below the Mason-Dixon Line, it may also be inevitable.
"It's odd, because when I was growing up, I wanted to be cosmo boy, you know, I wanted to be city boy," he says. "I grew up in the woods in the South, and I talk like that and I sing like that, and my images are Southern, I guess. I've been so close to living in New York a hundred times, and I tried to live in L.A. for six months. Moved out, moved back. I like Georgia; it's comfortable there."
He's a skeptic, a cynic, a relatively small-time alternative musician indentured--for now, at least--to the road. And he's happy.
"I have a perfect life for me," says Chesnutt in a soft twang. "Once I realized as a teenager that I wasn't goin' to be working at the cotton mill, once I knew that I was a Southern-misfit kind of guy, I went with it. It's a perfect little life for me, I guess, singin' and doin' and bitchin'.