James Victor “Vic” Chesnutt died from an over dose he was 45. Chestnutt was a singer-songwriter living in Athens, Georgia. Injured in a car accident in 1983, the paraplegic artist’s first big breakthrough to commercial success came with the release of the tribute album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation.
(November 12, 1964 – December 25, 2009)
Chesnutt released several albums during his career, including two produced by Michael Stipe, and a 1996 release on Capitol Records. His musical style is described as “skewed, refracted version of Americana that is haunting, funny, poignant, and occasionally mystical, usually all at once”.
Around 1985, Chesnutt moved to Athens and joined the band, The La-Di-Da’s. After leaving that group he began performing solo on a regular basis at the 40 Watt Club; it was there that he was spotted by Michael Stipe of R.E.M.; Stipe produced Chesnutt’s first two albums, Little (1990) and West of Rome (1991).
In 1992, Chesnutt was the subject of a PBS documentary, Speed Racer. He also had a small role in the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade which he later described self-mockingly as a poor performance.
In 1996, Chesnutt was exposed to a wider audience with the release of the tribute album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, the proceeds from which went to the Sweet Relief Fund. The album consisted of Chesnutt covers by famous musicians including Garbage, The Smashing Pumpkins (with Red Red Meat), Madonna, R.E.M. and Live.
He recorded with other groups and artists. Most notably he made two albums with a fellow Athens, Georgia group Widespread Panic, under the name of brute. Chesnutt’s album The Salesman and Bernadette (1998) was recorded with alt-country group Lambchop as the backing band. The album Merriment was a collaborative effort between Chesnutt and Kelly and Nikki Keneipp, with Vic writing and singing the songs, and the Keneipps playing the music. The 2005 album Ghetto Bells featured famed guitarist Bill Frisell, whom Chesnutt met in 2004 at the renowned Century of Song concert series at the German festival RuhrTriennale. Ghetto Bells also featured the legendary eccentric lyricist and composer Van Dyke Parks on accordion and keyboards. Chesnutt’s wife, Tina Chesnutt, would frequently play bass on his albums. His niece, and fellow songwriter, Liz Durrett also appeared on the Ghetto Bells album.
Chesnutt’s first four albums were released on the independent Texas Hotel label. He then recorded About to Choke (1996) for Capitol Records, which was his first and only major record label recording. The Salesman and Bernadette (1998) was on PolyGram; Merriment (2000) was on the Backburner Records label; spinART was the label for the self performed and recorded Left to His Own Devices (2001). Vic then found a new home at the New West Records label, who released two albums for him. In 2004 New West also re-released the early Texas Hotel recordings, including expanded liner notes and extra tracks.
In the winter of 2006, he recorded North Star Deserter at the Hotel2Tango in Montreal. It was released on September 11, 2007 by Constellation Records. The record included contributions from Constellation artists Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. The album was produced by documentary filmmaker Jem Cohen.  He also appeared as a guest musician on Cowboy Junkies‘ 2007 album Trinity Revisited, a 20th anniversary edition of their classic album The Trinity Session.
Chesnutt was also a supporter of medical marijuana, which he claimed helped with his medical problems. He contributed the track Weed to the Rescue to the 1998 Hempilation II charity album, with proceeds going to NORML, an American organization dedicated to marijuana legalization.
Elf Power (also from Athens, Georgia) collaborated with Chesnutt on the album Dark Developments, released under the name Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums. The “amorphous strums” refers to Curtiss Pernice and Sam Mixon, who also played on the album.
An adoptee, Chesnutt was raised in Zebulon, Georgia, where he first started writing songs at the age of 5. At 18, a car accident left him partially paralyzed, though it wasn’t long afterward that he realized he could still play guitar. After his recovery he left Zebulon and moved to Nashville, Tennessee; the poetry he read there (by Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Stephen Crane, and Emily Dickinson) served to inspire and influence him. Chesnutt stated his atheism since age 13.
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