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Vic Chesnutt's death-obsessed folk cuts deep -- and personally

December 1, 2009 |  2:07 pm


If you ever need a clear example of the institutionalized cruelty of the American healthcare system, ask Vic Chesnutt.

After a car crash left him a paraplegic as a teen, the Georgia singer-songwriter beat long odds to become one of the great wits of contemporary art-folk. He's lately ridden a fine streak of collaborative albums with members of the Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, including his latest, the death-obsessed yet weirdly uplifting "At the Cut."

But there's an albatross that follows Chesnutt from the door of his home to every show he plays. Though he's currently insured, an accumulating stream of nearly $70,000 worth of unpaid hospital bills is threatening to swallow much of his livelihood as a songwriter. It's left him in an unprecedented condition --  one where he's at a loss for words.

"I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt said. "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. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel."

Those feelings are deeply ingrained in "At the Cut," where almost every song offers at least a sideways glance at creeping mortality. Take, for instance, "Flirted With You All My Life," an incandescent country tune that's a kind of a breakup letter to Chesnutt's own thoughts of ending his life.

"I've been a suicidal person all my life, and that song is me finally being 'Screw you, death,' " Chesnutt said.

But the record's centerpiece might be "It Is What It Is," a long and intimate acoustic suite where he riffs on Auden and Henry Darger, cracks one of his best one-liners yet ("Like the Invisible Man directing traffic, I'd be ineffective no matter how enthusiastic") before giving over to a plainspoken, utterly unsentimental acceptance of his own end. "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."

Chesnutt's very real ensnarement in the insurance system lends an uncomfortable yet deeply compelling undertone to his lyrical attempts to make peace with illness, his paraplegism and death. Chesnutt doesn't hold out too much hope for whatever healthcare bill makes it through the Senate, either -- "What will pass will be weak, the powers that be will be happy and the insurance companies will be thrilled," he believes. Those facts only remind a listener that the small braveries of an album like "At the Cut" can, if not offer solutions, at least be a bit of comfort and companionship. Or solace that Chesnutt doesn't have to figure out even bigger problems, like how to fix California's ailing economy.

"You guys are the most screwed of all," he said, laughing.

Vic Chesnutt plays the Echoplex tonight with his band, featuring members of Fugazi and Godspeed You! Black Emperor at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.

-- August Brown

Photo by Sandlin Gaither