November 12, 1964 - December 25, 2009
Singer/songwriter and longtime Athens, GA resident Vic Chesnutt, whose literate lyrics and intimate, unadorned music impressed fans, critics and fellow musicians alike, died of an intentional overdose of muscle relaxants on Christmas day, two days after falling into a coma.
Born in Jacksonville, FL and raised in Georgia, Chesnutt learned trumpet in school and guitar from his grandmother. Chesnutt had been in a wheelchair since being injured in a one-car accident at the age of 18. Though he'd been a guitarist and keyboardist in a series of rock bands since before his accident, afterwards he re-learned guitar, and sticking to simpler chords by necessity, developed his own idiosyncratic songwriting style, equally influenced by songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and an (allegedly shoplifted) copy of the Norton Anthology of American Poetry.
After REM's lead singer Michael Stipe saw him play in the 40 Watt Club in Athens, where he was playing a weekly residency, Stipe offered to produce his debut album, Little, featuring Chesnutt's voice accompanied only by ARP synthesizer. Future albums developed more complex arrangements, and collaborations with artists as varied as Widespread Panic, Jonathan Richman, Van Dyke Parks and the Cowboy Junkies. He was the subject of a PBS documentary, "Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt" and had a small role in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade." In 1996, his songs were covered by the likes of REM, Nancy Griffith with Hootie and the Blowfish and his good friend Kristin Hersh for the album "Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation," proceeds of which went to the Sweet Relief Fund, which provides financial support for the medical care of uninsured musicians. It was Hersh who first reported his suicide attempt, via her twitter page.
While he may have been decidedly a rock artist image-wise, he was a definitive singer/songwriter who had many of the musical characteristics- directness, simplicity and lack of unnecessary adornment- favored by fans of folk music, and as such deserves to be better investigated by them. "Is the Actor Happy?" from 1995 is this writer's favorite. He is a perfect example of an artist who worked within his physical limitations to produce music of emotional resonance.