vic chesnutt, 1945-2009

vic chesnutt in 2008. photo by sandlin gaither.

vic chesnutt in 2008. photo by sandlin gaither.

Vic Chesnutt may have been one of the most unintentionally subversive songwriters of the last few decades. Listen to his debut album, 1990’s Little (a record he proudly proclaimed as “idiosyncratic”), 2003’s comparatively mainstream Silver Lake or his two most recent works – 2007’s North Star Deserter and 2009’s At the Cut – and you heard the music of an uneasy poet wrestling with themes of mortality that often shifted gears from brittle folk soundscapes to Joe Henry-like pop impressionism.

A household name Chesnutt wasn’t. But his music got into the heads of a loyal cult following and was widely championed by several of his Athens, Ga.-area contemporaries – most notably R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who produced Little and the 1992 followup West of Rome, and members of Widespread Panic, which Chesnutt performed with in a collaborative combo called Brute.

So inspiring was his music that the 1996 benefit album Sweet Relief II for musicians with medical and financial hardships was devoted entirely to Chesnutt songs as covered by R.E.M., Nanci Griffith, Indigo Girls, Joe Henry (with sister-in-law Madonna), Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins.

Chesnutt’s personal profile certainly fit the cause of Sweet Relief II. Partially paralyzed following a 1983 auto accident, Chesnutt worked, recorded and toured in a wheelchair. His most recent tour wound up in Austin, Texas earlier this month.

All of this makes Chesnutt’s death last week one heck of a jolt. Having fallen into a coma, reportedly due to an overdose of muscle relaxants, he died at age 45 on Christmas Eve.

“I’ve been around the world and still feel like the song I wrote yesterday has as much to say as the songs I wrote in the ‘80s,” Chesnutt told me in an interview prior to an October 2004 performance at The Dame. “But I write from the inside out. Songs can be both autobiographical and completely fictional – sometimes within the same line.”

Recommended listening: the aforementioned Silver Lake and 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette (a collaboration with the Southern pop surrealists Lambchop) for their musical daring; West of Rome and 1995’s Is the Actor Happy? for their songs’ doleful detail.

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