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POP MUSIC

As His Nerves Turn

Others are lining up to sing his songs, but Vic Chesnutt says, 'There's always the fear in me that I'm washed up.'

August 04, 1996|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

It's hard to imagine a greater compliment for a songwriter: some of the most popular and/or respected names in contemporary pop--including R.E.M., Madonna, Hootie & the Blowfish and the Smashing Pumpkins--each recording one of your songs for a charity album.

If you're an obscure artist whose records have come out on a tiny independent label, the endorsement seems all the more genuine. And if the tribute coincides with your signing to a major label, you must feel utterly validated and confident.

Well, meet Vic Chesnutt.

"I wish I could say I had some sort of confidence out of it, but . . . I'm always worried," the Georgia native says in his twangy, sing-song drawl. "There's always the fear in me that I'm washed up. I'm in my own little world I guess. My own little nervous world. I always think that it's a fluke somehow, that there isn't a place for me. "

"That's Vic--insecure," says Susan Farrell, co-owner of Texas Hotel Records, which has released his four albums. "That just kind of radiates from the person that Vic is. He looks at life a little differently. . . . He's got a real down side and a real up side."

Chesnutt's first album for Capitol is due in November, and it will be preceded by this week's release of "Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation--The Songs of Vic Chesnutt," a benefit album for Sweet Relief (see review, Page 73). The nonprofit organization provides financial aid to musicians in need of medical help.

"Here's a guy who's fought physical and financial hardships to stay focused on doing what he does," says the album's executive producer, Greg Sowders, explaining the project's premise. "For lack of a better word, he was a great kind of poster guy to represent what we're trying to get done on a lot of different levels."

And Chesnutt's reaction to the adulation?

"That's the weirdest thing ever. All these people playing my songs is the weirdest thing ever."

*

Chesnutt, 31, is sitting in his wheelchair in a dressing room at the Wiltern Theatre, where he's the opening act this night for the Cowboy Junkies.

His wife, Tina, who sometimes backs him on bass, tends to pre-show tasks. Executives from Capitol drop by to pay their respects and discuss the album he's recording for them.

Chesnutt holds a cigarette like a dart between the thumb and forefinger of his half-paralyzed right hand, squirming in a wheelchair whose broken joints are secured by electrical tape he's borrowed from the Junkies' road crew.

"I've got my [expletive] together a little more than I used to," says Chesnutt, whose flirtations with self-destruction are legendary among his followers, and whose cantankerous nature inspired his inclusion in one newspaper's survey of "singer-songwriters from hell."

"I'm not as suicidal as I used to be," he adds. "I think I hit a little bit better spot. I've been pretty good for maybe a year and a half."

One reason is that he's stopped drinking--a habit he adopted early, and one that determined much of his life's course.

Chesnutt was driving drunk the day in 1983 when he hit a ditch on a Georgia back road and broke his neck, paralyzing his legs and limiting the use of his hands and arms.

He had moved from his tiny hometown of Zebulon to study literature at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he'd drifted into the city's music and poetry circles. After the accident, with his depression and bitterness enhanced by prolific alcohol and drug use, he still managed to play his odd compositions at local clubs.

One fan would literally become his lifeline: R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe took Chesnutt into a studio and produced some songs, then sent the tape to his friends at Texas Hotel Records in Santa Monica.

Texas Hotel released the bare-bones recording as "Little" in 1990, and Chesnutt's roughhewn, idiosyncratic music started drawing a cult following. Stipe also produced 1992's more elaborate "West of Rome," and Chesnutt followed it with 1993's "Drunk" and 1994's "Is the Actor Happy?"

Singing in a clenched, strangled croon and phrasing with unpredictable turns, Chesnutt delivers quirky, delicate narratives whose left-field, lit-major imagery brings constant surprise and humor to the dark currents.

"He gets away with using words that most people would get busted for, and somehow he pulls it off," says Dave Ayers, the artists and repertoire executive who signed him to Capitol. "I can't explain why--the tone of his voice, the way he strings lines together, the sound of the words. Vic doesn't hear things like the rest of us, he doesn't think like the rest of us. And that's a privilege for a company, to work with somebody like that."

A privilege, but also a bit of a pain. In typical Chesnutt fashion, the Capitol debut hasn't gone exactly as planned. Most of the original sessions were scrapped when Chesnutt decided they were too slickly recorded and that he'd chosen some of his worst songs.

He cut more tracks in upstate New York with members of the indie-rock band Agitpop and then recorded some solo songs in Athens. The album will combine selections from all three modes.

"I'm not sure how to describe them," Chesnutt says of his songs. "I like to write beautiful songs--not sad songs, but heavy songs that one person will laugh at and another person will definitely not laugh at. . . .

"I like to write these kind of songs that will make me tingle or give me a little flutter or whatever. That's all. That's my only goal really. . . . It's all about emotion, I think."

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