Saturday, December 26, 2009

Obituary: Singer, songwriter Vic Chesnutt dead at 45

From The New York Times:

Vic Chesnutt (pictured), 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., a family spokesman said. He was 45 and lived in Athens.

He had been in a coma after taking an overdose of muscle relaxants earlier this week, said the spokesman, Jem Cohen.

Mr. Chesnutt had a cracked, small voice but sang with disarming candor about a struggle for peace in a life filled with pain. A car crash at age 18 left him partly paralyzed, and he performed in a wheelchair.

The accident, he has said, focused him as a songwriter, and it became the subject of some of his earliest recordings. “I’m not a victim/Oh, I am an atheist,” Mr. Chesnutt sang in “Speed Racer,” from his first album, “Little,” produced by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and released in 1990.

In a recent interview on the public radio show “Fresh Air,” he told Terry Gross: “It was only after I broke my neck and even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say.”

Although he never had blockbuster record sales, Mr. Chesnutt was a prolific songwriter who remained a mainstay on the independent music circuit for two decades, making more than 15 albums.

Musicians flocked to work with him: he recorded with the bands Lambchop, Widespread Panic and Elf Power, as well as the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and in a recent burst of creative activity he made two albums with a band that included Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and members of the Montreal indie-rock group Thee Silver Mt. Zion.

Because of Mr. Chesnutt’s fondness for simple guitar chords — after his accident his fingers could no longer form the jazzier ones, he has said — his work was often described as a variant of folk-rock. But the sound of his albums changed with their revolving collaborators, from stark recordings of Mr. Chesnutt alone to finessed full-band arrangements.

The constant in his career was a keen poetic intelligence that could be sardonic or unsparingly confessional. “I’m not an optimist/I’m not a realist/I might be a sub-realist,” he sang on his 1996 album “About to Choke.”

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 12, 1964, James Victor Chesnutt was adopted and grew up in Zebulon, Ga.; his grandfather gave him guitar lessons, having him transpose “Sweet Georgia Brown” into every key in the scale. He was injured in 1983, while driving drunk, he later said, and shortly thereafter moved to Athens and became a regular at the 40 Watt Club, where he was seen by Mr. Stipe.

A documentary, “Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt,” was released in 1993, and in 1996 his songs were performed by Madonna, the Indigo Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M. and others for “Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation,” an album that benefited the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a nonprofit group that offers musicians medical support.

His survivors include his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt; a sister, Lorinda Crane; and nine nieces and nephews.

Mr. Chesnutt was an outspoken critic of the health care system, saying in his recent interview on “Fresh Air” that operations had left him deeply in debt. In his music, he was also frank about his own problems, including suicide, which he had attempted several times.

He sings about suicide in “Flirted With You All My Life,” from his recent album “At the Cut,” describing death as a lover he must break up with because his accomplishments in life are incomplete:

When you touched a friend of mine I thought I would lose my mind

But I found out with time that really, I was not ready, no no, cold death

Oh death, I’m really not ready.