The only word the late Athens musician Vic Chestnutt ever uttered to me was a giggly shout into the microphone: “Busted!”
A friend and I tried to sneak out of his show through the stage side door at the old Atomic Music Hall in Athens. It was locked. We had to walk back by in front of Chestnutt. He was amused and called us out.
I started paying attention to Chestnutt in the early 90s, about the time I got really serious about songwriting. Chestnutt was someone the general public never really caught on to. But if you wrote songs, and you tried to be serious about it, and you lived in Athens, then you knew who he was.
Of course, going to see him live was a hit or miss proposition. There were the shows when he seemed pretty lit, where he couldn’t remember the words to his own songs. He’d sit up on stage in that wheelchair, flubbing it all, and I remember feeling angry at him a time or two. You mean I paid for you to act this way? Music may have been a great love in his life, but he mistreated it sometimes. And that was hard to watch.
But I loved songwriting. And I recognized Chestnutt as a real lyricist, someone to mimic. I played in bands, played some shows and recorded some stuff, but I was predominantly a bedroom musician for about 15 years, meaning I would spend hour upon hour sitting on my bed alone with my guitar. What if I start the verse as the first bar ends, instead of at the beginning? What if I tune both the E and A strings down to a D and a G? What phrase does this Phillip Levine book of poetry have in it that I can rip off in a song?
I listened to Chestnutt’s music and could tell that he had spent countless hours in his bedroom, doing the same things, just much better. I liked how he would stick too many syllables in a line and still make it work.
Chestnutt had driven drunk and wrecked his car at the age of 18, losing the use of his legs. But he kept putting his fingers on the guitar and singing.
“I’m barely alive, ever since my daddy died. And I’ve been searching for my own little babies to misbehave and betray me.” — from the song “Stupid Preoccupations.”
That song is from the album “West of Rome.” And while I like a good bit of Chestnutt’s writing, it’s that album that really hooked me. I appreciate the songwriter who values imagery over declarations of love. And that album is full of vivid pictures. For instance, most every adult feels nostalgia for youth, for the childlike feelings they can no longer experience. And I like how he painted such a picture in the first verse of “Panic Pure”: “My earliest memory is of holding up a sparkler, high into the darkest sky, some Fourth of July Spectacular. And I shook it with an urgency I’ll never be able to repeat.”
Chestnutt always sounded like a sad fellow. And when he took pills last week and died on Christmas Day, it was not particularly surprising. We focus a lot on how people leave this world. And his was no glorious departure. It was a sad thing, not to be admired or copied by anyone.
But I hold on to his lyrics and the sound of his odd, Southern squirrelly voice that offered some real poetry.
“And to all you observers, in your scrutiny, don’t count my scars like the tree rings.”
If there’s one tribute I could offer to him, it’s this: Whenever I listened to his good stuff, it sure made me want to close the door to my bedroom, pick up my guitar and write my own songs.
I just hate that he left the show early.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.