Those who appreciate folk-roots songwriting at its rawest and most honest likely already knew about Vic Chesnutt. Others may only be learning of his work now, in the wake of his tragic death by apparent deliberate overdose on Christmas Day.
Chesnutt’s unique, unadorned songs combined the outsider edginess of Daniel Johnston with the tender emotionality of Nick Drake and the careful craftsmanship of Townes Van Zandt. His work earned him the admiration and friendship of many great writers and performers, including Michael Stipe of REM, who produced Chesnutt’s first two albums.
A lifelong depressive who’d been rendered paraplegic after a car accident at the age of 18, Chesnutt struggled with his life and art openly, referring candidly to suicidal tendencies in his work.
Yet Stipe – who was at the hospital with Chesnutt when he died – told National Public Radio it’s his friend’s unique sense of humour he’ll remember most.
Close friend and collaborator Kristin Hersh called him “brilliant, hilarious and necessary” and spoke of referred to Chesnutt’s “poetry untainted by influences”
the raddest thing about vic chesnutt?
the way he sang these awkward, $10 words with such grace.
they never felt out of place, or over reaching.
they just felt natural. and right.
he could deliver these big words in song,
but in such a way that you never felt their weight.
just their impact.
Chesnutt’s career would have been the envy of many a roots writer and performer: an appearance on the Mountain Stage, a recent tour with Jonathan Richman, and the endless admiration of his peers, including the tribute album Sweet Relief II.
That recording featured a wild array of artists – Indigo Girls, REM, Garbage, LIVE, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nanci Griffith, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Madonna among them – and was a testament both to Chesnutt’s influence, and to his status as a health care icon. Chesnutt was deeply in debt for his own hospital care and was being sued by a Georgia hospital for his health-care bills when he died.
The result is the kind of tribute usually reserved for dead icons. No matter how far these simple songs are stretched, the blood-and-guts emotion remains. As they approach his tales of honor, morality and greed, the artists sound as though they’ve measured the distance between their own best songs and Chesnutt’s – and are a little humbled, maybe even a bit scared. With good reason. Chesnutt’s work is more than the sum of its parts. He remains largely unnoticed partially because of the unkempt way he sings. At the same time, his songs are compelling precisely because of the way he sings.
All that admiration wasn’t enough to chase away Chesnutt’s demons, and that’s a terrible shame. But it was more than enough to leave a legacy in song.
Our thoughts are with Vic Chesnutt’s wife, sister, nieces and nephews and his many friends and admirers around the world. RIP.