Vic Chesnutt died on Christmas Day. The apparent suicide of the dark genius isn’t completely surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. The acclaimed underground singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia, seemed to be constantly grappling with demons, but unlike many with the same problems, he was able to manifest it into beautiful art. A car accident at 18 left him a paraplegic, and he said dealing with the impairment was one of his biggest inspirations for his Southern Gothic-style songs that were often both haunting and humorous. Chesnutt was a musician’s musician. His first two albums were produced by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and he came to wider recognition when his songs were performed on the 1996 tribute album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation by artists including Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Indigo Girls. Over the years he collaborated with an endlessly diverse array of acts: Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Elf Power, and recently Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He also had a small role in Billy Bob Thornton’s film Sling Blade.
I first became a fan of Chesnutt through his collaborations with Widespread Panic. The band and songwriter teamed up under name Brute and released two great albums, 1995’s Nine High a Pallet and 2002’s Co-Balt. Panic also recorded one of Chesnutt’s most haunting tunes on 1996’s Bombs and Butterflies. The words of “Aunt Avis” seem to foreshadow this tragedy:
Help me mama, for I have grinned
Save me daddy from where I’m goin’
Call out to me from the ages beyond
Help me remember how to be good
How to continue when I feel I really shouldn’t
Below is Chesnutt performing “Aunt Avis” at the Grey Eagle in Asheville this past September.