Vic Chesnutt, 45

Indie folk musician was known for dark, humorous songs

Chesnutt carved out a career despite being paralyzed in an accident.
Chesnutt carved out a career despite being paralyzed in an accident. (2003 Photo By Johnny Buzzerio)
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By Claire Noland
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Vic Chesnutt, 45, a singer-songwriter of spare, idiosyncratic folk tunes tinged with melancholy, died Christmas day in Athens, Ga., after an intentional overdose of prescription muscle relaxants, a family spokesman said.

Paralyzed after a 1983 single-car accident when he was driving drunk at age 18, Mr. Chesnutt had limited use of his arms and hands but nonetheless carved out a career in music, which included being a guitarist. He was discovered in the late 1980s by REM frontman Michael Stipe, who championed his early recordings, and he gained the respect of music critics and fellow musicians who were struck by his darkly humorous songs.

Mr. Chesnutt tackled death and mortality head-on in his lyrics, as in "It Is What It Is," from his new album "At the Cut":

"I don't worship anything, not gods that don't exist/I love my ancestors, but not ritually/I don't need stone altars to hedge my bet against the looming blackness/that is what it is."

In recent interviews he contemplated the challenges he faced as a wheelchair-bound paraplegic with inadequate health insurance and mounting medical bills.

"I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Mr. Chesnutt told the Los Angeles Times this month. "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford."

A prolific musician with a high, plaintive voice who recorded raw, intensely poetic albums in quick succession and maintained a rigorous performance schedule, Mr. Chesnutt had appeared Dec. 1 at the Echoplex in Los Angeles's Echo Park in support of "At the Cut." In the Times interview he called "Flirted With You All My Life," a song on the new album, "a suicide's breakup song with death."

Born Nov. 11, 1964, in Jacksonville, Fla., Mr. Chesnutt grew up in Zebulon, Ga., where his grandfather taught him to play the guitar. After moving to Athens, Mr. Chesnutt began performing in clubs there and attracted the attention of Stipe, who produced his debut album, "Little," in 1988. The albums "West of Rome" and "Drunk" followed, paving the way for his major label debut "About to Choke" in 1996.

That same year REM, the Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie and the Blowfish, and others covered Mr. Chesnutt's songs for "Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation," a tribute album that benefited the foundation that raises money to help pay uninsured musicians' medical bills.

Mr. Chesnutt's survivors include his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt, who played bass with him, and a sister.

-- Los Angeles Times

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