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If you were to put together a list of a hundred of the most random, bizarre ideas on which to base a song, you would probably be hard-pressed to come up with anything more peculiar than the theme of "Sultan, So Mighty," a track from Vic Chesnutt's new album Silver Lake. In a haunting falsetto sung over a bass-heavy, brush-snare background, Chesnutt examines a eunuch's relationship with the harem he must guard, as well as his enslavement to his master and castigator, the sultan.
"I saw on TV a while back a thing like 'Today in History,' about the day the last castrati died," Chesnutt says in a gentle Southern drawl. "These young boys who could sing really good, they'd cut their balls off so their voices would never change, and then when they were older, they could still sing like when they were a boy. And they played this clip from this guy singing, and it was so great and beautiful and gorgeous, and I got to thinking about the powers that be mutilating this guy. Then I got to thinking about a subversive relationship that a eunuch would have with the harem, and to me it seemed like an interesting story to explore -- this kind of intimacy they would have that the power structure would not approve of, and this intimate relationship that would make the sultan jealous and angry."
Just about anything can serve as fodder for Chesnutt's fertile imagination. A native of Zebulon, Georgia, he's an oddball with a taste for the subversive and a knack for literary narrative. The nine solo records Chesnutt has released over the past thirteen years are shaped by darkly brooding lyrical meditations, countrified stream-of-consciousness wordplay and spare storytelling.
"It's kind of selfish, sitting around in a room by yourself and writing," Chesnutt says. "It's not about others, for me at least. It's a very lonely kind of deal. But it's fulfilling, or it can be. That's why, when you see it take on a life of its own, when it has its own relationship with others outside of what you intended, it's a pretty cool thing."
Selfish or not, Chesnutt speaks from a peculiar place that is both highly personal and deliberately obscure. Much ink has been spilled over the fact that he lost the use of his legs and partial use of his arms in a car accident at age eighteen, but it's a point that bears repeating. The incident figures hugely in Chesnutt's life -- and thus in his art. Following the crash, Chesnutt became a prolific reader and eventually coaxed his reluctant arms and hands to learn to play the guitar. As much as his apparent physical vulnerability -- he looks like a 97-pound string bean when folded up in his wheelchair -- the barren honesty of his writing has won him legions of intensely loyal fans. Mail from admirers often includes odd pleadings: "Please don't die" read a recent letter.
"It's a little bizarre," Chesnutt says, "but it's really good for me. It's like I have this big support group, and it does comfort me somewhat in the bleak hours, knowing that I have touched people. It's a boost to know that my selfish works have transcended my own selfish mind, that I've given something to other people."
It's unlikely that Chesnutt's music would have touched anyone outside his inner circle if it weren't for Michael Stipe. Stipe befriended Chesnutt when he was playing around the vibrant club scene in Athens, Georgia, in the late '80s; the R.E.M. leader managed to shepherd him into the studio to record 1990's Little; West of Rome followed in 1991. That pair of sparsely recorded, desolate, rough gems laid out Chesnutt's peculiarities in phrasing, storytelling and song structures. Between 1993 and 1995, he recorded another pair of albums, Drunk and Is the Actor Happy, on which he explored more hook-driven and upbeat tunes -- not that anyone noticed.Chesnutt toiled in relative obscurity until the 1996 release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, a followup to the hugely successful Sweet Relief compilation project that benefited songwriter Victoria Williams. Crafted in a similar spirit, Sweet Relief IIenlisted heavyweight admirers of Chesnutt's, including Soul Asylum, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls and Madonna, all of whom contributed covers of his songs, with decidedly mixed results; a portion of the proceeds were allocated to offset Chesnutt's formidable medical bills. Suddenly his name was bubbling to the surface in a much wider variety of places -- a pyramid scheme of exposure.
More exposure came Chesnutt's way with the birth of Brute, a side project he formed with the members of Athens-based Widespread Panic. The project was ad hoc at first; a loose jam session in 1995 resulted in the recording of Nine High a Pallet, which was followed in 2002 by Co-Balt. The combo sounds like a tighter, less wandering Widespread and a brighter, more concise Chesnutt; it's lively music shorn of both the noodling and the gloom. Playing to a whole new set of dreadlock-covered eardrums has been worthwhile for Chesnutt, but he has some misgivings about Panic's fans -- especially when they yell out the names of Brute songs at his solo shows.