Vic Chesnutt

Where Were YouWest Of Rome
Guilty By AssociationIs The Actor Happy?
New TownAbout To Choke
Injured BirdThe End Of Violence OST
MaidenThe Salesman And Bernadette
ParadeThe Salesman And Bernadette
Cutty SarkCo-Balt
And HowDark Developments
Flirted With You All My LifeAt The Cut

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Vic Chesnutt playlist


Contributor: Brad West

In 1998, aimless and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to pack up and move from the city in which I was raised to the sleepy college town of Athens, GA. I had always lived in GA and had visited Athens a number of times for concerts or to visit the University as I was nearing high school graduation and trying to figure out what’s next. Its legendary status as a hotbed of new music was well-deserved – from Pylon to the B-52s to R.E.M. to more little-known acts such as Dreams So Real and Love Tractor, the bands that called Athens home were the soundtrack to my teenage years.

At the same time that I was wandering through life waiting for the next leap forwards, Athens was experiencing another in a long line of musical renaissances with the emergence of the Elephant 6 collective of bands. Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal, and Elf Power were the big names at the time that had settled in or were from the area.

I will admit wanting to immerse myself in this burgeoning scene did play a part in my decision to move the 4 hours northeast, harboring my own dreams of falling in with like-minded musicians and ‘making it’, but the single biggest draw for me was I wanted to be closer to Vic Chesnutt. I wanted to live in the same city and walk the same streets and see him play gigs and run into him outside of Wuxtry Records or The Taco Stand. There was nothing in my hometown holding me back so off I went.

Chesnutt, who grew up about an hour south of Atlanta in Zebulon, GA, was quadriplegic due to a drunken car accident when he was 18. He did have limited motion and feeling in his arms and, discovering he was still able to play the guitar taught to him by his granddaddy, he decided to make the most of it. He was a fixture on the Athens music scene in his wheelchair and his guitar pick superglued to a wrist cuff, and was eventually noticed by Michael Stipe at a gig at the 40 Watt and ended up in John Keane’s studio with Stipe producing.

Signed to Santa Monica, CA record label, Texas Hotel, he would go on to release 4 albums for them, with the first 2 being produced by Michael Stipe. These 4 albums are considered the classic Vic library from which much of his fan base was introduced to him. They are certainly my favorite, but there is so much more and I forced myself to limit my selections to just 3 songs from this era to make room for the wealth of brilliant material that followed. It goes without saying, though, if you’re new to Vic Chesnutt, you could do far worse than picking up his first 4 Texas Hotel albums, Little, West Of Rome, Drunk, and Is the Actor Happy?.

On to my selections, which are presented in chronological order rather than ranked.

From the Texas Hotel albums, I have chosen Where Were You, Supernatural, and Guilty By Association. I didn’t pick a song from his first album simply because it was impossible for me to pick just one, so none ended up being the viable solution as I tried to whittle a list down to just 10.

All of these songs are foundational Vic for me. Where Were You, in particular, from 1991’s West Of Rome, was the song where it all clicked. This was the song where I knew I had discovered a new obsession. To hear someone like Vic singing in the same southern accent as me, using phrases that my own granny used, it was a revelation for someone who grew up in the deep south to hear someone that valued it rather than felt shame about it, to hear someone very obviously racing towards his upbringing rather than trying to escape it.

With its lyrics about crying in his hummus at his girlfriend’s place of employment, drinking tequila alone because he didn’t feel like socializing, and pissing on the spot in the yard where she had stood her ground, it’s a master class in songwriting from start to finish and took a firm hold of my 17-year old mind upon hearing it for the first time. The entire West Of Rome album, just like Little, is perfect from start to finish, but it was easy for me to single this song out for inclusion.

From 1993’s Drunk, which was recorded mostly in a barn a year prior to West Of Rome’s release, I selected Supernatural with its lyric about an out of body experience flying around a hospital room on intravenous Demerol, a rare appearance of his accident in a song.

Drunk also includes as a bonus track with its 2004 reissue an early version of another song to appear later in my selection, Cutty Sark, that is worth hearing as well as a version of a song, Aunt Avis, he gave to Athens pals, Widespread Panic. Aunt Avis contains one of my favorite of Vic’s opening verses:

Help me mama, for I have grinned
Save me daddy from where I’m goin’
Call out to me from the ages beyond
Help me remember how to be good
How to continue when I feel I really shouldn’t

To close out my selections from this era, I chose Guilty By Association from 1995’s Is The Actor Happy?. With background vocals by Michael Stipe, it also seems to be about Stipe. With lyrics about loonies coming out of the boonies with their sharpies and guns, loaded with questions. Stipe has been canonized and terrorized and Vic finds himself guilty by association, tied to someone much more famous than himself.

It is at this point that Vic finds himself on a major label, albeit for just one album. It is still the one album of his that is frustratingly difficult to find on streaming platforms even though it seems like it should be the one easiest to find given that it’s on Capital Records. 1996’s About To Choke, amusingly dedicated to those fans who wondered if Tina Chesnutt (his wife) was his sister or just someone with the same last name, states in the liner notes that “some of this album may be a bit obsessed with the premise that through death, life is nourished.” Personally, I think this could be true of all Vic Chesnutt songs so even though Discogs has rated it as the 35th ‘saddest album of all time’ I don’t find that to be the case more than any other of his releases. There is lots of joy on this album and my selection, New Town, is just one example:

New town, Americana
New town, rookie police
New town, industries are wanted for the local employees
And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders
That stretch just as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older

Next we find Vic with his last public appearance with Michael Stipe, and it is with a little known duet that appeared on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ 1997 film The End Of Violence. Injured Bird is one of the most powerful songs of either of their careers, and that’s a big pair of shoes to fill.

I was flattered but ambivalent
I was captive and I was spent
I was wounded the other day
You couldn’t see me
I’m really me

1998’s The Salesman And Bernadette finds Vic partnering with longtime friend Kurt Wagner and his band, Lambchop. This album, if I had to pick one, is my all time favorite album of Vic’s and, due to this, I have picked two songs to highlight. The first one, Maiden, has the single greatest Vic vocal performance of all of his songs and one of the most amusing opening verses:

Dogs are barking, birds are chirping
The only thing better if I was squirting
But there’s no one here to love on me today
For the maiden’s on holiday

The second selection, Parade, in addition to being a great song, is also lyrically one of his finest:

Remember the time you took me
To see Harold and Maude
’cause I didn’t know the meaning
Of the word catharsis
We are busy weaklings
Poking around for reasons
We are happy little heathens
It’s just time we both admit it


This brings us back to the song, Cutty Sark, mentioned above, included in its original form as a bonus track on the Drunk reissue. Vic teamed up with Widespread Panic for two albums under the band name Brute – basically Vic Chesnutt with Widespread Panic as his backing band, not dissimilar to how The Salesman And Bernadette had Lambchop back him. Cutty Sark can be found on 2002’s Co-Balt. If I had to pick a favorite Vic Chesnutt song of all time, Cutty Sark would be in the running:

You’ve been startin’ rumors that we are lovers
When you know I’ve been runnin’ hard in the dark
But the only thing I been a-sleepin’ with is the Cutty Sark

Alright pour me one, Mikey.

I’m skipping over some late period Vic to get to my final selections. While there are gems to be found across the albums, Merriment, Left To His Own Devices, Silver Lake, Ghetto Bells, and North Star Deserter, I am trying to work with the goal of choosing 10 songs and there are two that I have to leave room for.

The first of those, And How, comes from his 2008 album, Dark Developments, with fellow Athens band Elf Power backing him. A humorous song in the Vic library with a powerful vocal that always gets me singing along.

And finally, we arrive at the song Vic will probably be remembered for when all else has been forgotten, Flirted With You All My Life from 2009’s At The Cut. Flirted With You All My Life starts off having you believe it’s about someone he is in love with, only to slowly realize as the song goes on that it’s about death. Once this realization kicks in, especially with the knowledge that Vic had attempted suicide multiple times in the past and the fear of future attempts culminating in a success always hung in the air around him, the song is both a hard slap in the face as well as one of the most lovely ways to sing about such a difficult topic. After a Ralph Stanleyesque “Oh Death”, we hear Vic sing:

You tease me with your sweet relief
You are cruel and you are constant

In interviews around this time, he claimed to be in a better spot in his life, but this was all proven untrue when, faced with mounting medical bills, he took his own life on Christmas Day, 2009, leaving this song as one of his final gifts.

Cruel and constant. My only hope is that it was sweet relief.

If you don’t watch any of the above clips, watch this one. You’ll need to click on ‘Watch on YouTube’ but it will be worth it.”

There was a final album recorded by Jonathan Richman, Skitter On Take-Off, that was released just shortly before his death. To me it is a return to the stylings of his very first album, just Vic with a guitar, and like his first album it was impossible for me to pick just one song from it. I urge you to seek it out.

I no longer live in Athens. During my time there I did get to see Vic on numerous occasions and I did run into him outside of The Taco Stand as well as random encounters on the sidewalks of downtown Athens. He wasn’t always in great shape or attitude, but it was always a joy to interact with such a giant of a man and I will always treasure those memories and his art.



Vic Chesnutt (1964–2009)


A Tribute Site to Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt in the Live Music Archive

Vic Chesnutt Documentary – What Doesn’t Kill Me (YT)

“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt”
Kristin Hersh, University of Texas Press, 2015

Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation
The Songs of Vic Chesnutt (1996 tribute album)

Vic Chesnutt biography (AllMusic)

Brad lived in Athens, GA but now lives in Oklahoma. He is on Bluesky and has also written about Moose on this site.

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