Vic Chesnutt, folk-rocker paralyzed in car crash; 45

By Claire Noland
Los Angeles Times / December 27, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Vic Chesnutt, a singer-songwriter of spare, idiosyncratic folk songs tinged with melancholy, died Christmas Day in Athens, Ga., after an intentional overdose of prescription muscle relaxants, a family spokesman said. He was 45.

Mr. Chesnutt had been admitted to Athens Regional Medical Center on Wednesday and died surrounded by friends and family, according to Jem Cohen, a filmmaker and friend who produced Mr. Chesnutt’s 2007 album “North Star Deserter.’’

“This is not a story of a rock star being on heroin or even drinking themselves down,’’ Cohen said. “The real story here is about a someone who struggled against amazingly difficult odds for many years and managed to transcend those odds with almost unparalleled productivity and creativity and power in his work.’’

Paralyzed after a 1983 single-car accident when he was driving drunk at age 18, Mr. Chesnutt had limited use of his arms and hands but nonetheless carved out a career as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist. He was discovered in the late 1980s by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who championed his early recordings, and he gained the respect of music critics and fellow musicians who were struck by his darkly humorous songs.

Mr. Chesnutt tackled death and mortality head on in his lyrics, as in “It Is What It Is,’’ from his new album “At the Cut’’:

I don’t worship anything, not gods that don’t exist. I love my ancestors, but not ritually. I don’t need stone altars to hedge my bet against the looming blackness that is what it is.

In recent interviews he contemplated the challenges he faced as a paraplegic with inadequate health insurance and mounting medical bills.

“I’m not too eloquent talking about these things,’’ Mr. Chesnutt said this month. “I was making payments, but I can’t anymore and I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford.’’

Mr. Chesnutt was a prolific musician with a high, plaintive voice who recorded raw, intensely poetic albums in quick succession and maintained a rigorous performance schedule.

Born Nov. 11, 1964, in Jacksonville, Fla., Mr. Chesnutt grew up in Zebulon, Ga., where his grandfather taught him to play the guitar. After moving to Athens, he began performing in clubs and attracted the attention of Stipe, who produced his debut album “Little’’ in 1988. The albums “West of Rome’’ and “Drunk’’ followed, paving the way for his major label debut “About to Choke’’ in 1996.

That same year R.E.M., the Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie and the Blowfish, and others covered Mr. Chesnutt’s songs for “Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation,’’ an all-star tribute album that benefited the foundation that raises money to help pay uninsured musicians’ medical bills.

Mr. Chesnutt leaves his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt, who played bass with him, and his sister, Lorinda Crane.