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Vic Chesnutt

by John Bloner, Jr.

When the late southern singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt's recording, The Salesman & Bernadette, arrived on Amazon.com's list of critics' top picks for 1998, Napster was still a few months away from its launch date and iTunes wouldn't debut until October 2001. While my ears couldn't hear a sample of the music, I was intrigued enough by the record's title--Who was this salesman and who is Bernadette?--as well as the website' review--"This album comes on with a quiet grace, gradually unwinds, then sidles into your heart with a kind of mournful soulfulness"--to add the disc to my online cart. It was one of the best mouse clicks I ever made.

Once in my possession, the disc did not capture my heart right away. "It's not a disc that's easily appreciated on the first listen," record reviewer Jason Josephes wrote. "But a few patient spins unravel something opaque yet shiny as hell. For me, it took more than a few spins. Six months went by before my curiosity changed into obsession, even though I played the record often. Nowadays, I can't get Bernadette out of my head.

Just these three syllables--Ber-na-dette--from Chesnutt's elliptical tongue conjure an entire movie in my mind.

French actress Bernadette Lafont with Claude Chabrol.  Photo: SIPA PRESS/REX FEATURES
Throughout his career, Chesnutt weaved names of the well-known and obscure into his songs. His titles included Isadora Duncan and Stevie Smith, honoring the late dancer and poet. The Salesman & Bernadette offers up reclusive artist Henry Darger, dance master Arthur Murray, the film Harold & Maude, Woodrow Wilson, and an unapologetic activist for civil rights for African-Americans.

She said her brother wished he was Negro
Went to school in African American studies
Once he had his picture taken with Adam Clayton Powell

By just listening to a few of his songs, it should come as no surprise that Chesnutt relished poetry and was once an English major in college. His lyrics hold up against the pantheon of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. He writes with extreme economy, each line, a seed, ready to bear fruit for his fans.

I do not know if Chesnutt was thinking of French new wave actress Bernadette Lafont (see above) when writing the Salesman & Bernadette album or if he was familiar with the French author Violette Leduc or the film based on her book, Therese and Isabelle, when he penned the lines below, but I cannot help thinking of these women when I am wrapped up in his album. Like all the great poets and songwriters, his songs spin meanings beyond their maker. They become part of our personal makeup.

Essy Persson and Anna Gael in the film adaptation of Violette Leduc's novel, Therese & Isabelle
Chesnutt was born in the "redneck Riviera", his nickname for the state of Florida, and moved at an early age with his parents and sister to Zebulon, Georgia. At the age of 18, an auto accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He spent four months in the hospital. During rehab, he gained enough mobility to play simple chords on his guitar. Following his release, he moved to Nashville and then on to Athens, Georgia, home to The B-52s, Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic and the sad-eyed champions of the minor key, R.E.M.

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. recognized Chesnutt's talent and produced his first two records, Little and West of Rome. Prior to recording The Salesman & Bernadette, Chesnutt also released the albums, Drunk, Is The Actor Happy?, and About To Choke. While the instrumentation for these records is sparse, focusing on Vic's plaintive yowl, he brought in the Nashville-based ensemble, Lambchop, for his next record to give his tunes a growl and a kick.

Lambchop redefines Nashville with its sound coming from lap steel, the burp of baritone sax, strings, whistles, organs and vibes, an assortment of small percussion items, and the powerful punch of a horn section, heard on the tune "Until The Led", that ventures south of the border near song's end. It's a glorious, body-shaking piece of music. Turn up your speakers!

Writing for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner commented on Vic's songwriting. "Chesnutt's writerly voice is as literal as it is lyrical," Deusner wrote. "Not merely because he writes in stories and often in scenes, nor because his subject matter aligns very closely with the concerns of Southern writers like Barry Hannah and Eudora Welty, but mostly because Chesnutt can cajole words into new shapes and meanings."

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe said, "He was able to bring levity to very dark emotions and feelings, and he had a humor that was really very unusual." Singer/songwriter, Kristin Hersh added, "Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored."

Chesnutt's album tells a story of a traveling salesman, who is often alone, sorting through duty free shops or leafing through glossy girly magazines while he picks at his breakfast inside a highway restaurant. It's not a glamorous lifestyle.

Travellin' will do him in
Trudging through the waves of people
Till his heart is cluttered and feeble.

The record reminds me of Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, and its desperate character, Willy Loman. "They don't know me anymore," Loman says of his customers, just before killing himself. Over his grave, his son speaks of him as "a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoestring. And when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake."

Chesnutt's salesman has seen many not-smiling faces. The thrill of the connection has passed him by.

I always heard this was such a festive town
but everybody over ten years old is frowning

His sad life descends downward until he's sitting alone in a cold room, contemplating his ruined soul. In the song, Square Room, Lambchop delivers a cold, lonely sound that whispers behind Vic's plaintive voice. It's the darkest tune on the album, but probably its best.  The salesman becomes one of T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men"--"Voices are/in the wind's singing/More distant and more solemn/Than a fading star"--moving from town to town, belonging nowhere.

Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's 1945 film, The Lost Weekend
I could read The Salesman & Bernadette as his biography, substituting salesman for singer/songwriter who's out there on some desperate road, pulling into a new town every night, making some temporary connections and trying to find the light switch in yet another hotel bathroom. 

Vic Chesnutt knew darkness. He titled his 1993 album, Drunk. It wasn't a casual choice. He had attempted suicide several times during his 45 years before he overdosed on muscle relaxants on Christmas Day, 2009. 

You could think that the man and his music was a real downer. "I have a dark worldview," he told Mike Burr of Prefix. "But I'm also full of yuks. I'm always on the prowl for yuks, and I'm very quick to laugh." 

His friend and fellow musician, Kristin Hersh, spoke to John Doran of The Quietus in 2013, about depression and coming through it. "Darkness is real," she said, remembering what Vic had once told her. "If we go into it as darkness, it will kill us. If we go into it as light--music and life--then it will save us."

There are plenty of yuks in Vic's intro to his song, "Granny", before he tells a simple story, in music, of a child asking questions of his grandmother, and in the time of four minutes and a few chords, he is able to lift a veil on not only his life, but everyone's life who's ever loved and lost someone, and make you cry and weep with joy at the same time when the little boy's grandmother tells him repeatedly at song's end.

She said you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart.

The Neighbors Dog, a Saskatoon-produced TV series filmed Chesnutt performing this song at a house concert in Canada in late 2009.

The title of this article comes from a remark that Chesnutt makes in Speed Racer, a 1994 documentary. "People often ask me," he said, "How come you don't write songs about your wheelchair and stuff? And I say, I dunno . . . what rhymes with wheelchair, anyway?"

If you're new to Vic's music, I'd suggest that you not start with The Salesman & Bernadette, as I had done, but instead dive into the magical waters of his 1995 record, Is The Actor Happy?, which Allmusic.com called, "probably as good an album as Chesnutt has made," and of which the "1000..Before You Die" series named as one of the essential albums to hear before you breathe your last breath.