Vic Chesnutt, singer-songwriter, dies at 45

Confined to a wheelchair in 1983, his songs moved Madonna, R.E.M.

Vic Chesnutt, the paraplegic singer-songwriter whose dark, candid songs dealt with human frailty and mortality, died Friday in Athens, GA. He was 45.

Chesnutt’s label, Montreal-based Constellation Records, confirmed the musician’s passing on its Web site on Christmas afternoon. Reports indicate he had taken an intentional overdose of prescription medication.

The vocalist, who had attempted suicide in the past, had bemoaned mounting hospital bills in recent interviews. He had struggled with depression and drug and alcohol abuse throughout his life.

Born in Jacksonville, FL, Chesnutt began writing songs at an early age. A 1983 car crash left him confined to a wheelchair, but he continued to write and perform in a pared-down style. He credited his mature, ruminative writing style to his discovery of “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”

After moving to Athens to study English, Chesnutt became active in the city’s fertile music scene, playing regularly at its most prominent venue, the 40 Watt. One of his chief sponsors was Michael Stipe, lead vocalist of R.E.M., who produced his first two albums, “Little” (1990) and “West of Rome” (1992), for the small Los Angeles independent label Texas Hotel. Summing up Chesnutt’s early work in “The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock,” critic Ira Robbins noted, “His skilled songwriting burns with reality’s pain while glowing with imagination.”

Two more indie releases secured a cult reputation for Chesnutt, who was also the subject of Pete Sillen’s 1992 documentary “Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt.” In 1995, he released the first of two albums he recorded with brute, a collaborative project with members of the jam band Widespread Panic.

He reached the apex of his renown in 1996, when Columbia Records issued “Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation,” a benefit album on which such stars as R.E.M., Madonna and Smashing Pumpkins interpreted his songs. The same year, he released “About to Choke” on major label Capitol Records. An album for Capricorn Records’ Velocette subsidiary, “The Salesman and Bernadette,” followed in 1998; he was backed on the collection by Nashville alt-country group Lambchop.

During the ‘00s, he recorded for the L.A. roots label New West (which also reissued his Texas Hotel work) and Constellation; his two albums for the latter label featured contributions by Guy Picciotto of the Washington, D.C., punk band Fugazi and members of the experimental Canadian groups Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra.

His most recent album, “At the Cut,” was released in September. He reportedly cut an as yet unreleased set with singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman.

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