Perhaps it's testimony to America's essential greatness that a culture seemingly dominated by news of Roseanne and Tom's marital problems still manages to produce artists as inspired as Georgia's Vic Chesnutt.

Chestnutt isn't a ringer for Eddie Vedder, his voice isn't as cherubic as Steve Winwood's and he can't step like Hammer--in fact, he's been getting around with the help of a wheelchair since an Eighties auto accident. No, Chestnutt's appeal comes from the soul: His point of view, made up of equal parts darkness and humor, produces songs that range from captivating to devastating.

In Chestnutt's view, his songs are colored by his experiences as a southerner. "I can't escape it," he says. "I can't escape the language I grew up with and speak every day." Nevertheless, he admits that he's sometimes troubled by the extent to which he's been influenced by the Southern slang he loves: "I grapple with these problems every day when I'm writing, and talking, too. Sometimes I think I should go more Oxford Dictionary... Random House as opposed to Grannyspeak. I like Grannyspeak--it's rich, warm, and sometimes it's ambiguous. But it's a fault of mine that I need to work on."

Hardly. Southern narrative storytelling--supplemented by folk rhythms and the raw courage of punk--serves as the backbone of Chestnutt's music. Imagine Carson McCullers and Woody Guthrie uncomfortably soused at a Jonathan Richman concert, and you'll have some idea how unexpected, challenging and invariably rewarding his work is.

Although the thirty-year-old Chestnutt (less than zero relation to country vocalist Mark Chestnutt) has been writing and singing songs since the middle of the last decade, his career got its first boost thanks to the kindness of a stranger: Michael Stipe. The R.E.M. lead singer first caught Chestnutt at the 40 Watt Club in their hometown of Athens, Georgia--and after the show told him that he was the best thing Stipe had heard since the Butthole Surfers. Before the end of 1989 Stipe had hauled Chesnutt into a studio, arranged a microphone in front of him and fired a figurative starting gun.

The resultant album, Little, on the small Texas Hotel label, begs to be described as beginner's luck, but it's far more than that. The first cut, "Isadora Duncan," is an epiphanic tale that finds Chestnutt shaking a leg with the mother of modern dance, while the last is an ode to "Stevie Smith," a writer whose poems Chestnutt describes as "beautiful and melancholy." In between, he offers a sketch of the fictional Danny Carlisle, a boy who'd "rather dream than fuck," and provides an idyllic psychoanalysis of Pinocchio. These are unlikely subjects, but producer Stipe was smart enough not to question them. "Michael knows how arbitrary inspiration is," Chestnutt says. "You don't know where it comes from. You don't know why it is. Anything can inspire something beautiful."

Since his debut, Chestnutt has made a pair of equally impressive albums: 1992's Stipe-produced West of Rome (a title borrowed from a novella by John Fante, one of Boulder's favorite sons) and this year's Drunk, which was recorded during a 48-hour period Chestnutt spent apart from his wife, Tina, a skillful bassist in her own right. The title was not chosen by accident--Chestnutt seldom performs sober. "I try to have rules," he notes, "but I'm the least disciplined guy I know. I drank cheap tequila for three years in Athens straight out of the bottle. That was my drink of choice. It's not pretty. It tastes like chocolate."

Whatever the circumstances of its creation, Drunk is a watershed that displays the stress fractures of Chestnutt's day-to-day existence. "Naughty Fatalist" and "Supernatural" are standouts, while "One of Many," his second recorded tribute to poet Smith, is marked by lightning brutality. These tunes clearly deserve a wider audience than Texas Hotel's efforts on Chestnutt's behalf have thus far attracted, but the artist is cautious when considering a move to a major label. "I'm not uninterested," he concedes, "but I don't want to get swallowed up. I could get in big trouble easy. [They might] give me a few thousand dollars and then never do anything ever again and make me wear braces [on my teeth] or something."

There's no need for such alterations. Vic Chestnutt is just fine the way he is.

Live, with Vic Chestnutt and Angelfish. 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 23, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $15.75, 290-TIXS or 447-0095.


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