In a closer-to-perfect world, Vic Chesnutt would be played on the radio, and it would happen not because of committee calculations but as a result of free-willed DJ across the country independently choosing to air his finicky, endearing art-folk. In a closer-to-perfect world, a majority of American radio stations wouldn’t be disinformative monstrosities controlled by a corrupt, agenda-fied company whose vice chairman bought the Texas Rangers from a certain future president whose administration behaves as if Orwell’s 1984 were a blueprint for utopia. In a closer-to-perfect world, a Victrola-shaped statuette from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences would mean something: A Grammy would never have been given to faux-vox rent-a-props Milli Vanilli, or at least a Grammy would occasionally be presented to an artist who exemplified the “old weird America” of the Victrola age captured on beaucoup Smithsonian anthologies. In a closer-to-perfect world, Vic Chesnutt’s creaky mantle would be so well-stocked with Grammys that he could use their cones to color-coordinate his guitar picks.
Oh man, can you tell monoculture got me down? Every day I run into people who think it an organic coincidence that the exact same blockbuster-elects are “smash singles” in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. The mainstream once absorbed some subcultural elements, but lately it’s a monorail that does less than skim gritty surfaces, preferring to stop only in safe hubs. Vic Chesnutt seems marooned down one of the leftover, disparate tributaries, as if he’s been cut off by the wall of cinderblocks with which Big Music keeps grassroots from seeing the light of day.
You see, Vic’s songs aren’t muzakable, and don’t succumb to an intercom ethos; his optimism comes in spurts, so he won’t be churning out those consumer-soothing, defeatist-culture-contradicting, “everything’s alright/you’re a winner” anthems anytime soon. Vic’s a romantic, but realistically; thus he won’t be volunteering anything to radio’s easy, love-as-a-panaceac-smokescreen popaganda in the foreseeable future. And he’s country, but respectful of individual contrariety, so the drive-time puppeteers will never get a united-we-stand (except-if-you-pull-out-in-front-of-my-SUV) ballad from him.
Wait, you say, before I declare jihad! Don’t the Grammys (funny how the word now connotes a nickname for one’s parents’ mammys more than it does a gramophone) acknowledge Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams? Yeah, but in this oddly vestigial way, as if they’re designated hitters who make up for the dearth of mavericks nominated elsewhere. Glance at England’s comparatively daring Brit awards to gain fresh perspective on America’s perennial blandees. To Dylan’s comment re: not needing a weatherman to surmise wind direction, add the idea that a coroner won’t be required to officialize the cause of a certain industry’s foul odor.
In a fascinatingly full-circlish turn of events, Vic Chesnutt’s ambitious new album Silver Lake (released March 25 on New West Records) had its knobs twiddled by Mark Howard, the engineer of multiple Bob Dylan albums and producer of Lucinda Williams’ new World Without Tears, with which it also boasts a common “studio,” the Paramour Estate, a mansion undergoing work to have its ’20s re-roared in (Vic’s album’s namesake) Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. To boot: Chesnutt landed Williams’ guitarist Doug Pettibone as his session guitarist. These circumstances testify to Chesnutt’s development in the ten years since the release, on his sophomore album West Of Rome, of his ode-from-a-distance “Lucinda Williams”, when he was a relative unknown (and definitely unknown to Williams).
Still, even if he were backed by an R.E.M./U2 supergroup and produced by Quincy Jones, Vic is too purely an American freak for the mainstream’s mild minders. He is the rare songwriter whose language becomes rhapsodic when he’s confronted with ugliness, and bluntly dismissive when faced with beauty. Example: Whereas Florida is marketed as a paradisiacal neverland in which The Best Spring Break Ever is always underway, Chesnutt’s song “Florida” (also on West Of Rome) proclaims, “There’s no more pathetic place in America.” The song is about his friend Steve Buczko, who went to Florida to commit suicide, and succeeded.
When I ask Chesnutt what he thinks of the state where he was born and where he lived until age 5 (“I barely remember it, but I’ve spent a lot of time there seeing relatives and all that crap”), the state which I currently call home, he speaks with the honesty that has fueled eleven strong albums, but which has also landed him in the critical-darling ghetto. We discuss the lech-friendly and lizard-exploiting proto-theme parks (“mermaids and alligators”), and then Chesnutt says: “I’d gotten a call that my friend killed himself in Florida, and I just kind of whored it out. Some people have talked to me about how much that song means to them as Floridians. I don’t know, that’s great. I understand — I mean, Florida was a gorgeous wonderland until they fucked it.”
Some larger-than-life quality casts a long dollar-sign shadow over Silver Lake, and I can’t put my finger on it. Is the versatile band to blame, consisting of, in addition to Pettibone, Daryl Johnson, Patrick Warren, Don Heffington, and Mike Stinson, who have worked with Emmylou Harris, Michael Penn, Victoria Williams, and Christina Aguilera, respectively? Not necessarily, since 1998′s The Salesman And Bernadette found Chesnutt backed by a fifteen-person incarnation of the great anti-Nashvillian concern Lambchop. Is well-off indie New West the culprit? Nah, Salesman was released via Capricorn/Polygram, and 1996′s About To Choke saw Chesnutt’s major-label flirtations climax with Capitol. The songs, with the exception of a decidedly singular epic (more later), are vintage Vic, but there’s something…bigger about this album, and I refuse to believe that Howard’s production is solely responsible. Was there just a conscious effort to “go large,” in the conception and execution of Silver Lake? Was it maybe egged on by the expansive recording room at the Paramour?
Chesnutt pooh-poohs that theory: “Basically it was all recorded live in that studio, so it didn’t feel to me like I was expanding on anything. In fact, the record that I really wanted to make was going to be exploded even more than this. To me, Silver Lake was a scaling back on my ambition. What I was shooting for in theory was something even higher, a bigger departure than what this turned out to be. The Brute records were done like this, where we’d just run right through them and record them.”
Brute, Chesnutt’s side project with Widespread Panic, made two records before suffering a devastating loss when guitarist Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer. “It went deep,” Chesnutt says. “His illness hit me very hard. It really hurt the idea of Brute in my heart. It hurt bad, the whole deal. I’m still pretty scarred by it.”