News of Vic Chesnutt's death on Christmas Day brought sadness to everyone who knew him, both personally and musically. The 45-year-old singer/songwriter was a grim folk fixture of the Athens music scene.
Born James Victor Chesnutt on Nov. 12, 1964, in Jacksonville, Fla., he was raised in Zebulon, Ga. After a 1983 car accident left him a quadriplegic, the wheelchair-bound Chesnutt, who had been writing songs since age 5, began honing his talents as a songwriter. Upon moving to Athens in 1985, he started working with the band the La-Di-Da's, but soon struck out on his own as a solo performer. He became a regular fixture at the 40 Watt Club, where he was discovered by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who produced his first two records, Little (1990) and West of Rome (2000), both released on Texas Hotel Records.
He released 15 records over the years – the most recent being this year's At the Cut (Constellation Records) with members of A Silver Mt. Zion and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, and Skitter on Take Off (Ada/Vapor). He approached his songwriting with painful honesty and an ornery sense of humor that illuminated the gravity of his physical state.
In the fall of 1992, I saw him perform for the first time in a book and record store called the Antiquarium in Omaha, Neb. He played songs from Little and West of Rome in the upstairs art gallery. To see a man with such a crumpled frame sing intensely personal songs about death was captivating. In contrast, watching him laugh and tell jokes after the show gave him the appearance of someone who was truly enlightened. It was as though he had the universe figured out.
Despite past suicide attempts, Chesnutt laments on "Flirted With You All My Life" from At the Cut that he isn't ready to die: "I flirted with you all my life/even kissed you once or twice/and to this day I swear it was nice/but clearly I was not ready."
He slipped into a coma on Christmas Eve after overdosing on muscle relaxants. He died at approximately 3 p.m. the next day in an Athens hospital. As Stipe stated on REMHQ.com this weekend, "We have lost one of our great ones."
Chesnutt is survived by his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt; sister, Lorinda Crane; and nine nieces and nephews. As a result of his death, Chesnutt's family has inherited sizable medical debt. Chesnutt's longtime friend and musical collaborator Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses) is collecting donations to help cover the expenses. Donations can be made at kristinhersh.cashmusic.org/vic/.