Before a couple years ago, I knew very little of Vic Chesnutt.
I heard his name bandied about whenever my friends discussed their favorite songwriters. I knew he was a tragic figure, having been confined to a wheelchair since the age of eighteen after a devastating car crash, and that he died entirely too young. I knew he still managed to play guitar, even with the limited use of his hands, and I remember being surprised to learn that he had a bit role in Sling Blade, one of my favorite films.
Recent years have seen me make efforts to relieve my ignorance. When I became interested in Vic’s music, I didn’t have to look far for an expert in the field. Charles Fontaine, one of my best friends, is a long time fan, acquaintance, and unofficial archivist for Vic. His collection of recorded and print material is impressive, with shelf upon shelf in his den dedicated to hours of nearly long lost, but thankfully not forgotten, live recordings, outtakes, and demos. It is a collection that would make any collector of any artist jealous, indicative of untold hours of work and unparalleled passion.
When I got word that New West Records was going to be releasing a collection of Vic’s work on vinyl, I knew that I needed to chat with Charles, who is a serious fan of both Vic’s music and vinyl.
Charles, who is enjoying his first couple weeks of fatherhood with his new daughter, Violet, was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about Vic’s music, his personal journey through it, and the pending release of Vic’s catalog on vinyl.
BRO – Care to reminisce on the first time you heard Vic play?
CF – The first time I heard a Vic song, it wasn’t actually Vic. My foray into his music came through the band Live. It was 1994 and I really loved their record Throwing Copper. In my pursuit to hear more stuff from them, I came across their live cover of Vic’s song “Supernatural.” It was so different from what I had been listening to and it instantly captivated me. I immediately went to my local Cat’s Music and tried to order a copy of Drunk, Vic’s record that had “Supernatural” on it. It took what felt like forever for it to come in. Once I heard it, I was hooked. As for hearing Vic play live, I wasn’t able to catch him until 2002 at a little place in Nashville called 12th & Porter. After that, I made the effort to see him on every tour thereafter and we became friendly. He was a hoot and an all around genuine guy.
BRO – At what point did you make the transition from avid fan to unofficial archivist?
CF – The thing about Vic is that he was so prolific. During his shows, he would often perform songs that he had either just written or that had never been released. I guess it’s always been in my nature to be a completist, so I started looking for and discovering live shows to find those gems that were never put on album. I eventually amassed such a collection that I ended up putting out live compilations of the unreleased songs. Vic used to be very fond of those and, whenever I would see him, I would hand him my newest comp. He seemed to appreciate the effort, and he would usually follow up after listening and tell me how much he enjoyed them. I collected live recordings from Vic’s earliest days through his final gig in 2009, home demos, unreleased cuts, outtakes, and albums, and I released over ten volumes of unreleased tracks totaling close to 150 songs. Some of those unreleased songs ended up being recorded and released before Vic died, which I was always pleased about, because there some incredible tunes there that needed to be heard.
BRO – What one record are you most excited about in this vinyl release from New West?
CF – I’ve always been partial to the early Texas Hotel records, so it’s nice to see a reissue of those, and the later stuff he recorded for New West is also excellent, but what I am really, truly excited about is the late September mystery release, which I understand is supposed to be unreleased stuff. I have no idea where it was culled from, nor what era we are talking about, but it’s got me giddy.
BRO – Tell me about swapping paintings with Vic.
CF – Vic was a creative sort. He was a musician, painter, and playwright, an all round bohemian. When I graduated from college, I had a shiny new Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree and I wanted to make art that I considered to be different from what I was making in school. One winter’s day in 1995, I went into my studio and put the song “Panic Pure,” from Vic’s 1992 album West of Rome, on repeat. I allowed what I heard in that song to influence my creative process and, a few hours later, I had created what I considered to be my first non-college piece of artwork. As a token of thanks for his inspiration, I presented that painting to Vic before a show in Asheville in 2003. He hung it above his fireplace, which to me was the coolest thing ever. A few years later, Vic sent me a watercolor that he had created and it remains one of my most prized possessions.
BRO – What record should a listener new to Vic’s work grab from this collection?
CF – Among Vic fans, the aforementioned West of Rome is his masterpiece. I can’t disagree with that. But picking a favorite Vic album or song is like picking a favorite child. It’s damned near impossible. He has songs for every mood. Some songs are maudlin, while others are down right goofy. I would suggest starting at the beginning with 1990’s Little and working through Vic’s growth, just as he did. Vic developed as a songwriter and his sound aged in a way that tells his story better than any book could.
A total of seven Vic Chesnutt albums are slated for release on vinyl this year. The first, Little, came out last month. The second installment, Drunk, will be hitting the streets soon. The seven albums are available in a bundle or individually. Interested fans and vinyl collectors should point their browsers here to check out purchase options.
And be sure to check out “Soft Picasso,” from Little, on this month’s Trail Mix.