I listened to a lot Vic Chesnutt over the holidays — from the late songwriter’s earliest lo-fi recordings of 20 or 15 years ago (Little, Drunk, West of Rome) to his more elaborately orchestrated studio efforts of recent years (Is the Actor Happy, Silver Lake, Dark Developments). Sad, happy, and sarcastic, the tunes colored the mood of the season.
Chesnutt was born in Florida and raised in Zebulon, Ga. (near Macon). A crash in a pickup truck at age 18 left him partly paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. He began his musical career singing in obscure local bands in Athens, Ga., before recording his first solo collections in the late ’80s.
The acclaimed Athens-based songwriter passed away on Christmas Day. He was 45 years old. Most news reports say that Chesnutt took an overdose of muscle relaxants, which put him into a coma for nearly two days.
I first heard about the bleak news about Vic’s overdose by telephone on Christmas Eve from Curtiss Pernice, a friend and former bandmate. He and I actually toured together in Vic’s backing band in 2003, after Vic released a studio album titled Silver Lake. We’d both known Vic for years in the Athens music scene. I was thankful I first heard it from a friend like Curtiss, but the outlook sounded bleak.
By late afternoon on Christmas Eve, a mix of reports on Vic’s condition started hitting the web. It wasn’t long before things accelerated with a swirl of tweets and blog posts on Vic’s actual death. Some folks jumped the gun and posted based on unconfirmed reports, and the inevitable recycling and re-posting of shaky information followed.
His record label, Constellation, released a statement late in the evening on Dec. 25 confirming Vic’s death.
An obituary written by Ben Sisario ran on The New York Times website late on Christmas night. It opened like this: “Vic Chesnutt, whose darkly comic songs about mortality, vulnerability and life’s simple joys made him a favorite of critics and fellow musicians, died Friday in a hospital in Athens, Ga. Mr. Chesnutt had a cracked, small voice but sang with disarming candor about a struggle for peace in a life filled with pain.”
After the shock of the actual news hit me, this eloquent obit cleared the fog and hit home. Vic’s songwriting and singing styles were uniquely Southern and deeply emotional — even his simplest ditties about the silliest, most exaggerated characters.
Vic could twist humor out of the most disturbing and awkward life situations, from romantic heartbreak and disillusionment to dire struggles with more personal demons and character flaws. While he may have earned a reputation with some in the music world for being cranky, irascible, or cynical, those who knew him and played music with him enjoyed his sweeter side. He could be incredibly generous and artistically supportive.
Within his storyteller lyrics, Vic’s odd sense of humor often overshadowed whatever grim mood or tone his singing and playing might have conjured. This was a constant within Vic’s music, whether totally solo, or in musical collaboration with a diverse menagerie of artists.
Chesnutt’s latest studio album, At the Cut — a collaboration with Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto — was released in September. A studio collaboration with songwriter Jonathan Richman titled Skitter on Take-Off was released this fall. Both collections maintained Vic’s familiar lyrical and atmospheric balancing act.
Vic’s death last week shocked and saddened his family, friends, and fans, but the spirit behind his music will surely continue to inspire and encourage.