Vic Chesnutt Sweats the Music Biz

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Vic Chesnutt worries. He worries that he'll never write another song, never sell another record. He worries that his new record deal will go the way his old one did, which is to say, not well.

After releasing two albums on small indie label Texas Hotel and two on Caroline that made him a darling among critics, the Athens, Georgia-bred singer-songwriter graduated to Capitol Records for 1996's About To Choke. But what was supposed to be a long-term relationship turned into a quick infatuation when, earlier this summer, Capitol handed Chesnutt the rights to what would become The Salesman and Bernadette and showed him the door. "I'm still a little depressed," he admits. "I can't help but feel like I failed at this business of being on a major label. I really wish they'd begged me, 'Oh, please, please stay!' But I know better than that."

An extraordinarily gifted songwriter, Chesnutt's unpolished, resolutely non-commercial records are not the stuff of which platinum artists are made. Chesnutt, of course, worries about this, too. "Now I kinda regret making the kind of record I made," he says of About To Choke. "Maybe I should've made a real commercial-type record. Everyone likes Lucinda's [Williams] record, and that's slick. Maybe then it would've been fine."

On the decidedly unpolished Bernadette, Chesnutt is backed by alternative country outfit Lambchop, who bring a fuller sound and vague air of abandon to his traditionally spare folk-rock. "I wanted to make a record that was the opposite of my last record, which was a pretty lonely experience," he says. "Most of the time it was me on my own, with an engineer. This time I thought it would be fun to make a record with all those guys. And it was."

Bernadette will be released next month on the Mercury Records subsidiary Capricorn, home to Widespread Panic, with whom Chesnutt collaborated, as Brute [huh?], for 1995's Nine High a Pallet. Plans for another collaboration, perhaps this winter, haven't gotten much beyond the embryonic stages.

"I'm dying to do a new Brute record," says Chesnutt. "And I want to do a record with Fugazi. We did a song together this summer, [a cover of Olivia Newton-John's] 'Have You Never Been Mellow,' and it turned out very amazing. I think we could do a pretty heavy record."

But first, Chesnutt wants to get back on the road. The epitome of a cult icon, he has historically attracted profoundly attached fans, including famous ones like Garbage, R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins, all of whom performed on The Gravity of the Situation, a 1996 Chesnutt tribute album. Chesnutt, who can't remember the last time he toured (for the record, it was spring '97), misses the interaction with audiences. Sort of.

"I guess the very emotional nature of my songs attracts emotional people, and they become quite, um, emotional," Chesnutt says of his fans. "They come up to me after the shows, and I don't know what to say to them. I don't want to be an asshole or anything, but I think I do my best communicating alone in my room, when I'm writing songs. But I do appreciate them very much. If it wasn't for them, I would've killed myself a long time ago."