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Vic Chesnutt Speaks His Mind

"I met Johnny Cash in 1982 when I was playing in a popular redneck cover band," said singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt during a recent phone interview, recalling his unique run-in with the late music legend. "He was filming a TV movie with Andy Griffith, and my band played their wrap party. As Johnny and Andy were leaving, June Carter was walking in between them holding them both up because they were so drunk. They were smiling and hootin' and hollerin', but what struck me most was that June Carter was hot! I know she was older than my mom but still — she was hot."

Although his reedy, high-pitched voice couldn't be more different than Cash's bellowing baritone, Chesnutt's wry, piercing lyrical abilities would have undoubtedly garnered much respect from the Man in Black. With his trademark wit and unflinching honesty, 38-year-old Chesnutt has built up a formidable canon of great folk-rock songs over the course of his eight solo albums. His most recent longplayer, Silver Lake (New West), is a musical departure of sorts for the wheelchair-bound Southern songwriter, who opted for a more expansive feel instead of his usual lo-fi approach.

"What I wanted to do was make an orchestra record with a real orchestra but, for reasons out of my control, it had to be scaled down a bit," Chesnutt said while eating a fish sandwich in Birmingham, Ala., waiting for his tour van to be fixed. There's no orchestra but, with the help of producer Mark Howard, Chesnutt enlisted a stellar set of session veterans to fill out the album's sound. The songs on Silver Lake have a loose, off-the-cuff quality, which makes sense considering the newly assembled band only had an hour to practice before recording began.

"That was just the nature of the way the session was set up," Chesnutt said. "It was like an old jazz session where you get together with the band, show them the charts and start playing it. And as soon as everybody starts nodding their heads and getting into it, that must be it."

The impromptu process suits the album well, with tracks like the slow grooving electric-guitar rocker "Stay Inside" sounding like classic Neil Young and the playful "Band Camp," with its driving marching-band beat, evoking Simon & Garfunkel at their carefree best. Other songs, like the soul-searching "In My Way, Yes" and the plaintive "Styrofoam," glide along on the strength of Chesnutt's guitar and vocals, with only subtle-yet-effective accompaniment. But whether backed by a full band or a lone slide guitar, Chesnutt's evocative lyrics and unique vocal delivery are justifiably upfront throughout.

Before recording Silver Lake, Chesnutt decided to organize many his demos into three categories — short stories, poems and slogans — and work from there. "I had about a hundred songs that I was considering for this album at the start," the prolific songwriter said. "So I had this idea to think about it like an editor would if he's going to compile a good deal of material into one book. I didn't do an album with all stories or all slogans, because I think that might be a tedious record. I wanted to give it a little spice."

Although many of Chesnutt's songs have distinct aspects commonly associated with literature and storytelling, the songwriter claims not to be "a voracious reader." Still, he said that one of the biggest influences on his songwriting is famed Austrian writer Franz Kafka.

"Kafka's 'Fragments,' which is a collection of bits of stories, made a huge influence on my songwriting," he said. "Something about the impact of a partial thing, where the ending is in question forever, where it piques your interest for a second and then it's gone. It is so musical and comical, a kind of dry, melancholy tone that makes you giggle, but you can't giggle because the tone is so somber."

The most accessible song on the album, "Band Camp," features Chesnutt at his most comical, telling of a bittersweet May-December high-school romance between the "queen of the senior class" and a "lowly freshman" connected through their marching-band duties. Playing the part of the underclassman, he sings, "Once you soaked a tampon in some serious vodka/ Wore it to school/ Second period science lab/ You fell right off your stool."

The song "Sultan, So Mighty" is the album's epic centerpiece. In it, Chesnutt adopts the point of view of an ancient Oriental eunuch — a castrated man who guards the women's bedchamber — as he sings in a lofty falsetto, "And the Sultan so mighty/ Comes crawling to lowly me/ When he has a little problem/ With the ladies."

"I think it was initially inspired by this thing on the History Channel about the last castrato," Chesnutt explained. "They played a little piece of music and I thought it was such an amazing voice. I thought of this castrato and how they cut off his balls when he was a kid because he sang so beautifully, so he never got to jack off. I started thinking about what kind of relationship a eunuch might have with the ladies. Even though his sex drive is cut out and he can't get an erection, he might have had a more subversive relationship that the power structure wouldn't approve of."

Chesnutt sings of another unique relationship on the song "Fa-La-La," in which a hospital patient can't bear to leave his cold surroundings because he's found "the embodiment of a life force" in the form of a girl who "is running around all over the grounds of the hospital." Over grooving, Caribbean-sounding drums and guitar, Chesnutt wails, "No, I don't want to go."

Regarding the strange connections and characters found in many of his songs, the songwriter, who became partially paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident at age 18, said, "I always looked at things differently than other people. The only thing that broken neck did toward that shit was make me slower, like a turtle. Everybody else is spinning around fast around me and I'm slowly watching."

In addition to taking advantage of the few perks his disability offers — "If the cops are willing to help you out when you're drunk and not arrest you, then I'm going to play it up," the mischievous singer said — Chesnutt found new possibilities within music after the accident occurred. "When I woke up out of a coma I realized that I understood the structure of music better," he said. "I couldn't improvise as well before and I realized that suddenly, that I understood jamming — I think it might have been all that morphine."

On one of Silver Lake's most personal songs, "In My Way, Yes," Chesnutt questions his own role as a passive storyteller in troubled times when he sings, "Do you think it makes a difference?"

"I've been thinking maybe I should write more songs about kicking Bushy's ass," Chesnutt said. "I should write only songs about how he's economically railroading this country into ruin. That's what I need to do. I need to write some political songs that cause people to march in the streets and take over." — Ryan Dombal [Tuesday, October 14, 2003]

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