Athens singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt was at the forefront of the contemporary folk rock movement in America. His expressive, raw vocal style featured a prominent southern accent. “Vic has somehow turned pronunciation into an instrument,” John J. Sullivan wrote in the Oxford American. “He’s constantly resurrecting and warping syllables that we have, through habit or sloth, nearly elided into oblivion.”
James Victor Chesnutt was born on November 12, 1964, in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised by adoptive parents in Zebulon, Georgia. He took an interest in music at an early age, thanks in part to his grandfather, Sleepy Carter, a semi-professional musician. Chesnutt played trumpet in a cover band during his teens. In 1983, when he was eighteen, a car accident left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Not long after the accident, however, he discovered that he could still play guitar, and he was soon back to playing music.
Shortly thereafter Chesnutt moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he began to read such poets as Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Steven Crane, and Emily Dickinson, who came to inspire him and influence him lyrically.
Around 1985 Chesnutt moved to Athens and joined a band called the La-Di-Da’s. After the La-Di-Da’s broke up, Chesnutt began to play solo shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, which brought him to the attention of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Stipe, who regarded Chesnutt as “an acerbic reporter on the events of the town,” encouraged him to get his songs down on tape.
Stipe took Chesnutt into the studio and served as producer on Chesnutt’s first album, Little (1990), released by an independent label. Recorded in one day, Little has a stark, raw sound and consists almost entirely of acoustic guitar and vocals. Chesnutt’s emotive voice and compelling lyrics, which came to define his style, are evident on this album.
His second album, West of Rome, also produced by Michael Stipe, was released in 1991. A backing band—composed of Chestnutt’s wife, Tina, on bass, Jeffrey Richards on drums, and Kelly Keneipp (of the band Jack Logan) on guitar—gave West of Rome a fuller sound. New York filmmaker Peter Sillen came to Athens during the sessions for West of Rome and filmed the Vic Chesnutt documentary Speed Racer. West of Rome was well received, and together with the documentary, it helped establish a name for Chesnutt in the contemporary folk/rock scene. He followed with Drunk (1993), recorded in Georgia and Washington, D.C., and Is the Actor Happy? (1995).
Around this time Chesnutt joined members of the Athens band Widespread Panic to form the band Brute. In 1995 Brute released the album Nine High a Pallet on Capricorn Records. Though Chesnutt penned the lyrics for all the songs on this album, it has more of a rock-and-roll sound than any of his previous recordings, because Widespread Panic is known for its jam-rock style.
Chesnutt was exposed to an even larger audience in 1996, with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation—The Songs of Vic Chesnutt. It was a benefit record to assist musicians with medical and financial hardship, and featured a number of superstar musicians, including Smashing Pumpkins, Madonna, Hootie and the Blowfish, Garbage, Live, and R.E.M., covering Chesnutt songs. The same year, Chesnutt also played a small role in the movie Sling Blade.
In 1996 About to Choke was released by Capitol Records. In 1998 The Salesman and Bernadette was released, his richest and most varied album to date, drawing on the full horn section of the Nashville band Lambchop and bringing together the diverse styles of folk, rock, country, soul, and jazz. This album also features a guest vocal by singer Emmylou Harris, a fan of Chesnutt’s.
Chesnutt returned to his indie label roots in 2000, releasing Merriment on Backburner Records. Merriment returns to a stripped-down sound. In 2001 SpinART Records issued Left to His Own Devices, a collection of rarities, outtakes, and demos from various points in Chesnutt’s career. In 2002 he and Widespread Panic returned to the studio to record another Brute album, Co-Balt, on Widespread Records.
A string of new albums followed, including Silver Lake (2003) and Ghetto Bells (2005), both released by New West Records, and North Star Deserter (2007), released by Constellation. In 2008 the Athens-based record label Orange Twin released Dark Developments, a collaboration between Chesnutt and Elf Power, a band also based in Athens. The following year he released two albums, Skitter on Take Off, with Vapor Records, and At the Cut, with Constellation. Chesnutt also produced two albums recorded by his niece Liz Durrett, Husk (2005) and The Mezzanine (2007).
Though Chesnutt recorded a solid string of albums over the course of his career, his critical reputation was staked largely on his live shows. He toured solo and with such various major acts as Live, Soul Asylum, Bob Mould, Kristin Hersh, and Cowboy Junkies. Chesnutt’s live shows—especially his solo acoustic shows—had a quality of intense honesty.
Chesnutt died in Athens on December 25, 2009.