Film buffs know him from his more-than-a-few minutes of screen time in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, in which he played the member of Dwight Yoakam's band that gets rammed--wheelchair and all--knees-first into a door. (In real life, Chesnutt is saddled to the chair, the result of a single-car, drunk-driving accident at age 17. Oddly, he didn't have the faculties to play guitar after the accident until he dropped acid and regained better use of his arms.)
Casual music fans might remember the second installment of the Sweet Relief series of tribute albums, in which one relatively below-the-radar songwriter's songs are covered (the first contained the songs of Victoria Williams) and all proceeds go toward medical costs for musicians, who are usually uninsured. On Sweet Relief II, his songs were covered by the varied likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Indigo Girls, Sparklehorse, Madonna and R.E.M.
Speaking of which, R.E.M. fans probably know that it was Michael Stipe who "discovered" Chesnutt singing his songs to a small throng of the devoted at the famous 40 Watt club in Athens, Ga. Soon after, Stipe produced Chesnutt's debut album, Little (1990, Texas Hotel), and its follow-up, West of Rome (1991, Texas Hotel).
And the patchouli-wearing twirlers might know his work in Brute, a collaboration between Chesnutt and Widespread Panic that released its second album last year.
The problem here: The one way you should know Chesnutt--through his own performances of his own songs--you probably don't. He doesn't get played on the radio (OK, I heard him on KXCI once, covering an Elvis Costello song), and his videos, if he even has any, don't get played on MTV, or even MTV2 (though respected documentary filmmaker Peter Sillen made a documentary about him that aired on PBS). Which is really too bad, because the only way to truly "get" him is to listen to his albums or see him perform live, and getting him is a rather moving experience.
Beginning with the albums Stipe produced and on through The Salesman and Bernadette (1998, Capricorn), Chesnutt could virtually do no wrong. The songs on those albums are decidedly Southern Gothic, in a Carson McCullers way--by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and intimate in a way that sucks you in like a Hoover. As such, whether it's his sparse early works, or his later, more fleshed-out affairs, there's a homespun, front-porch quality that suffuses all of it, which is only appropriate for a guy who's prone to such Southernisms as saying things in conversation like, "I'm so excited I'm busting my buttons." When he sings, his drawl becomes a unique phrasing style, which tends to hold consonant sounds and hard vowels; nobody else sings like Chesnutt does. He's long on charm, for sure, but he's also one hell of a songwriter.
His songs are full of snapshot images that are far more picturesque than any photograph ("a front porch full of greasy, greasy grannies"), and his work is largely picaresque enough to be self-mythologizing, though you tend to believe he's humble enough not to even consider that as the aim.
But Chenutt's output over the last few years has been a bit spotty, with the only actual "Vic Chesnutt" album being an odds-and-sods collection of demos (Left to His Own Devices; 2001, SpinArt). Otherwise, there was the aforementioned second Brute album, and a collaboration with Kelly and Nikki Keneipp (Merriment; 2000, Backburner), none of which quite lived up to the kind of quality-control that longtime fans had come to expect. His new album, Silver Lake (on New West, exactly where he belongs), then, is that glorious return to form that's been awaited for a while now.
As if to reaffirm this notion, the first lines of album-opener "I'm Through" are "Forget everything I ever told you/I'm sure I lied way more than twice," which, in typical dry Chesnutt fashion, continues, "but understand I am not Emily Post/I could never be that precise." Easily his most lushly produced work to date, Silver Lake doesn't forget that Chesnutt's bittersweet lyrics are the reason fans show up in the first place, and appropriately, places them in front of the mix. (When Chesnutt performs live, his fans keep the room so quiet you could hear a mouse fart, as if they're afraid of missing a single syllable.) All the better, then, to appreciate tales like "Band Camp," the story of an older high-school crush who would "always vamp" in the marching band, and who once "soaked a tampon in some serious vodka/wore it to school." But what the song is really about is those missed opportunities we all look back on with longing. When the crush comes home from college at Christmas break, our narrator, still in high school, says, "You already looked like a whole different person/just like my much older sister." The chorus is but one line: "If I knew then what I know now."
It's typical Vic Chesnutt, which is to say, some of the finest songwriting around today. Welcome back, Vic.