Singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt has a keen eye for the bizarre. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of 18, when he got drunk and rolled his car into a rural Georgia ditch, Chesnutt has spent the years since banging out oddly profound folk-pop songs. His quirky tales of the back-porch culture of the American South have made him a favorite among legions of rock acts, including R.E.M., Live, and Garbage, all of whom were among the big names who covered his songs on the Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation benefit album in 1996. Chesnutt's latest record, The Salesman & Bernadette, is his seventh, and first for a new label. Backed by the odd Nashville country-soul ensemble Lambchop, the album finds Chesnutt fleshing out his normally spare songs and taking a few uncharacteristically long, hard looks at himself. Chesnutt recently spoke to The Onion about what it's like to grow up a redneck, how his wheelchair affects the way people look at him, and why his new album isn't as good as it could be.
The Onion: Making this album, were there different things going on in your head as opposed to the last few albums?
Vic Chesnutt: With every record, I kind of react against the last one. And this was a major reaction against my last record [About To Choke], because for that record I spent a month over at John Keane's house by myself, just me and John, and it was a lonely kind of deal. I just wanted to have a non-lonely experience on this record, and that's what it was. Lambchop are really good friends of mine, and I just wanted to be surrounded by really good buddies. I didn't want to have to make many decisions. We set up the record ahead of time so we knew what order we were going to record it in. We recorded it in order, and Lambchop just played. We did a lot of it live, so I didn't have to sequence the record. I didn't have to think much. Every now and then, I'd have to go, "Why don't you try this?" And every now and then, they would go, "Hey, why don't we change this a little bit?" So it was really a collaboration, unlike any of my other records, really. We recorded on the weekends, so we bought millions of beers and lots of food, and we went out to dinners, and it was kind of like a party the whole time. It was completely a blast.
O: What do you think Lambchop brought to the record?
VC: Well, besides the family atmosphere, the whole sound is Lambchop. It's really a collaboration. It was really them. It just sounds a lot like a Lambchop record.
O: They've got such an odd sound to begin with. Their new album [What Another Man Spills] has that whole '70s funk-soul thing going on.
VC: Yeah, they were really into that. They recorded that record before we started recording ours, so I kind of knew what they were into at the timethis soul thingand I really wanted to tap into that a little bit. I wrote a couple songs with that in mind, and we kind of jumped right on it. It's their record almost as much as it is mine.
O: Emmylou Harris played on the record, too. How did that come about?
VC: Well, I'd met her before. She told me she really liked my music, and we got along good. Her band brought her to see me; they were friends of mine. There was only one song I thought would be perfect for her to sing on, and it was "Woodrow Wilson." It was a little odd, I thought, for her to be singing on it, but she said she really liked it, and it was great. To me, that song is... You know, we kind of dropped the ball at the end on a couple of these songs, when we were mixing and mastering and picking mixes, but as far as I'm concerned, that song alone is worth the price of admission. That song is beautiful. I like the songs on this record a lot. I think we muffed it there at the end, but some of the songs are really great.
O: Why do you think you dropped the ball on some of the other ones?
VC: We just ran out of steam. We made a big mistake sending out rough mixes to my record companythis was when I was on Capitolbecause we wanted to convince them that we could mix it really good. So we made these really great mixes, spent a few hours on each song, mixing 'em so we could convince Capitol that we could mix it better. Well, they heard the rough mixes and said, "Of course we want you to mix them," and then they weren't really happy with our real mixes. They were like, "We like the roughs better." So we ended up going around and around, and at the end, we just sort of threw up our hands and said, "Fuck it." So we kind of dropped the ball.
O: Is that what led to Capitol not putting it out?
VC: Oh, no. That only had to do with the change at Capitol. You know, the president got fired, Gary Gersh, and the new guy probably looked at how many copies of the last record I sold and said, "Get rid of him." I didn't owe them any more records or anything, and this record didn't cost them that much. They were really cool about it, in fact. They just said, "Okay, it's yours. Go take it wherever you want to."
O: You didn't have to pay them for it?
VC: No, not at all. So that's pretty great. They did me right. They just told me, "Look, we're not going to do anything with it, so you can have it."
O: That's better than putting it out and then doing nothing.
VC: Or putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, and then putting it
out in name only. So it was good.
O: This new record was supposed to come out on Capitol, though.
VC: They had printed up 3,000 advances. And then they just said, "Okay, you're gone." So it's really odd that they went to all that expense. But I liked being at Capitol. It was really life-enriching, and I loved a lot of the people, but they really didn't know what to do with me. I approached it wrong, too: I produced my last record, About To Choke, and I panicked. I didn't want it to be too slick. I probably should've gotten a real producer and done it like a real major label, but they didn't really pressure me. It was totally the opposite: They were like, "Do whatever you want. Oh it's fantaaastic." And in the end, I think that because of that, it sort of fell apart.
O: What sort of difference do you think it would have made if you had gotten a real producer?
VC: Well, I think it would've made it more of a slick record that they would've liked. They could've found something to do with it. But as it was, you know, it just kind of fell apart from the beginning, really. They didn't know what to do with me. You know, the bean counters were scratching their heads, going, "What in the hell is this ugly freak doing on our label?" You live and you learn. I think About To Choke was a good record.
O: How do you think growing up in a small town in Georgia ended up shaping the way you write and look at music?
VC: Well, it affected my whole life, my whole personality. You know, I am the way I am. I was a little different from a lot of people in my hometown, so I always felt like an outsider a little bit. And also, there was a big conflict between my redneck heritage and my bohemian aspirations, and my own personality started gelling. That shaped the way I am a lot. Just growing up in the South, a lot of my songs are filled with this kind of stuff. I love Pike County. I love Middle Georgia. It was beautiful, and it was a great life for a kid. I hunted and fished and was a racist until I got to be a certain age, and I realized that that wasn't how it was. I just knew what everyone had told me when I was a kid. It really affected me deeply when I realized, "Oh, my God. A lot of what they tell me is not right." This kind of betrayal has affected me a lot in my songs, and led to this investigative nature I have. It's a kind of cynical thing. I think I would write totally different songs if I hadn't grown up where I did. I write a lot of songs about Pike County.
O: Did you come from a musical family?
VC: My granddaddy played, and my mom and dad listened to a lot of music. We were always listening to records. But my granddaddy influenced me a lot. He played the guitar, country music, so it had a big effect on me. When I was a baby, seeing him play guitar and sing kind of punctured some of the mystery of it. Like, "Oh, people sit down in their living rooms and make music."
O: Did you actually get to play with him when you were younger?
VC: Oh, yeah. When I was in the fourth grade, I started playing trumpet, so we played a lot together in the living room. I played with him on stage together a few times. It was great.
O: You've said that after the accident, you didn't slow down at all; that, if anything, you kind of dove even further into running around, drinking a lot. Initially anyway.
VC: Well, when I moved away from home, like everybody does, I went crazy. For 10 years at least. But everybody does, I guess.
O: Do you think that after a while, the accident gave you the chance to focus more on what you wanted to do?
VC: Well, it definitely shut down a lot of options. I wasn't going to be working in the cotton mill any more. My father really wanted me to work for Eastern Airlines, and that was over when I broke my neck. So it kind of clarified things a little bit. I think once I realized that I could actually survive, it was a lot easier to go, "Okay, I'm gonna hang out and write songs, and I don't care about a career. I'm just gonna read books and write songs." I guess once I realized that I wasn't gonna have to... I had like $150 a month from welfare, and I was like, "All right, screw it. I'm not going to get a job. I'm just going to read books." Readin' books. Goin' to clubs. It was great.
O: How long was it before you realized you could still play after the accident?
VC: Well, it was maybe a year before I could play guitar, but I was still writing songs the whole time. I had a big old analog keyboard. Made a lot of tapes at home. Nothing really came out of 'em. The songs weren't that great.
O: Do you ever go back and listen to them?
VC: No, not much. I will soon. I want to, but they're all on cassette, and I want to save them on CD or some more stable format. I need to lay them all down, because I know there's some cool shityou know, instrumental thingsthat I could use.
O: Do you think the wheelchair has affected the way people view you and your music?
VC: Oh, yeah, I know that it does. Definitely.
O: Positively, negatively, or just differently?
VC: Negatively. I think negatively. I mean, I know how it is. It's got to be that way; it's the nature of humans. It's built-in, very animalistic. When people see people who are different from them, they have a physical response. They can't help it. It's just like when a guy sees a hot babe, a physical reaction occurs. And when people see people who aren't normal, or broken, they have a physical reaction. It's just like if a chicken is sick, the other chickens will peck him to death. It's the same thing with humans. Maybe not exactly the samemaybe they want to mother thembut sometimes I'm sure it's, "Let's peck him to death." That's just the way it is. And I wish it didn't have any effect at all. I know some people can't deal with my songs because they think they're so sad. But I think if I were a different person, if the physicality was different, it might not be the same.
O: Well, you've got some sad songs, but the great majority are pretty funny.
VC: That's what I think. The tone is sad, but people just can't get it through their heads. They just think, "Oh, it's just pathetic. It's so pathetic." I know a lot of people used to think I was singing for attention or sympathy or something, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I always had a great desire to sing and write and communicate these things, these urges.
O: I think a lot of artists have that problem, though, of people seeing their songs as one-dimensional. If the voice is kind of downbeat and the arrangements are kind of downbeat, they'll automatically assume that it's a sad song. I remember interviewing Mark Eitzel, who is sort of the king of sad songs, but he talked about how his songs crack him up. He was saying, "If I were as sad and morbid as people thought, how could I possibly live with myself?"
VC: I know him pretty well, and he is that way! [Laughs.] But he's great. He's really funny, and his songs are funny, and it's a good comparison: [Our songs are] sad-sounding but funny underneath. As far as I'm concerned, there's at least one line in every song specifically designed as comic relief. In some of it, the whole damn thing is like that. Even the saddest... In "Square Room," there are a couple of funny lines in there. Some of it's not necessarily designed to make you go, "Ha ha ha ha," you know? They're just designed to make you go, "Ah! That's funny."
O: On stage, in your songs, and in person, you've got a self-deprecating sense of humor. Do you think that reflects your opinion of yourself?
VC: Well, I'm full of self-hate. Full of it, always have been. It's part of my nature.
O: How come?
VC: I don't know. I just never live up to what I wanted to live up to. I'm a cynical person anyway, and I know myself better than I know anybody else, so I can see all the flaws really well. And I try to fight 'em, but they kick my ass most of the time. I'm just cynical about my personality flaws. I hate a lot of things about me, how I think and my emotions. Not that I think I have ulterior motives or anything, but I wish I was smarter, I wish I was more compassionate, I wish I was more blah blah blah. On and on and on. Sometimes I didn't live up to my potential, and things like that.
O: One of the ways to react to that is to try to live up to it, to try to do better next time. Is that the way your personality works?
VC: I think so. I fight my personality all the time, and I'm kind of schizophrenic; I hate the way I'm really flip-floppy. I can never make a decision, because I see every side of the argument equally. I really hate that about me, but I always try to fight that. And it's in my songs, too, the sad/happy part. It's all an extension of my personality. But I always try to do better.
O: That reminds me of something you said a while back. You said when you were doing stuff for Texas Hotel [Records], they used to boss you around in the studio, and that made it a little easier than when you were recording for Capitol and they were telling you to do whatever you wanted.
VC: Yeah, that was really ironic.
O: Everyone talks about how major labels don't give you enough freedom to do what you want, but...
VC: They gave me enough rope to hang myself, that's for sure.
O: It's doubly ironic, because not only did they give you enough rope, but you didn't even want it.
VC: Completely. I need to be bossed around sometimes.
O: What else do you have coming down the road?
VC: I'm working now with Kelly Keneipp, who played with Jack Logan. We're writing an album together now that he's going to put out on his website. We're writing songs now and recording it. And we're hoping it'll be done by January 1st, but I'm not sure it'll be done by then. It's been great fun. I love working with Kelly. He's the first person I ever recorded with. Kelly and Logan and I go way back. I love those guys. I want to put together a live record. People have been beggin' me. And I've got hundreds of DATs over the years... I want people to know what kind of raving idiot I am.
O: Any Hollywood agents calling for your acting abilities after Sling Blade?
VC: I've gotten a couple of calls. Nothing really great. I'd do it again if somebody asked me and the script was good. I think directors who look at that movie go, "That fucker can't act." I'm still pretty embarrassed about my acting in that movie. I smoked a big, fat joint before my close-up, and that was just the wrong thing to do. It made me all nervous. I had this big plan about how I was going to act the scene, and Billy Bob told me not to. "Just be yourself," he said. So I tried to be myself, I guess. And he kept saying, "Just be yourself. Be annoying." So I was like, "Thanks, Billy Bob. Asshole."
O: All the studio people want him to make another Sling Blade, or at least another movie with that character, but it seems sort of doubtful that that'll happen.
VC: Well, I don't know. He might do anything if he makes a billion dollars.
O: He did Armageddon.
VC: That's what I'm saying. [Laughs.] That's what I'm saying. I think he'd do anything to make money, so that way he can make the kind of movie he wants to.