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Vic Chesnutt dies at 45; folk singer-songwriter

Chesnutt, who was paralyzed after a 1983 car crash, was known for creating poetic, melancholy music. He died from an intentional overdose of prescription muscle relaxants, a family spokesman said.

By Claire Noland

December 26, 2009

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

Chesnutt had been admitted to Athens Regional Medical Center on Wednesday and died surrounded by “devastated” friends and family, according to Jem Cohen, a filmmaker and friend who produced 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 Friday in an interview with The Times. "The real story here is about 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."


FOR THE RECORD:
Vic Chesnutt obituary: The obituary of folk singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt in Saturday's Section A misstated his date of birth. He was born Nov. 12, 1964, not Nov. 11. —



Paralyzed after a 1983 single-car accident when he was driving drunk at age 18, 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 REM 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.

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 wheelchair-using paraplegic with inadequate health insurance and mounting medical bills.

"I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt told The Times earlier 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."

A prolific musician with a high, plaintive voice who recorded raw, intensely poetic albums with a rock edge in quick succession and maintained a rigorous performance schedule, Chesnutt had appeared Dec. 1 at the Echoplex in Echo Park in support of "At the Cut."

In The Times interview, he called "Flirted With You All My Life," a song on the new album, "a suicide's breakup song with death."

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

Born Nov. 11, 1964, in Jacksonville, Fla., Chesnutt grew up in Zebulon, Ga., where his grandfather taught him to play the guitar. After moving to Athens, Chesnutt began performing in clubs there 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 REM, the Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie and the Blowfish and others covered 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.

Chesnutt's survivors include his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt, who played bass with him, and his sister, Lorinda Crane.

Services are pending. Information about memorial contributions will be posted at Constellation Records' website, http://cstrecords.com/.

claire.noland@latimes.com