The gospel according to Vic 

Vic Chesnutt spreads his message to the masses with a new Widespread Panic collaboration

Vic Chesnutt is relaxing at his home in the historic Cobbham section of Athens, an urbane quadrant of town where painstakingly restored homes line the quiet streets. Many of the decidedly Southern dwellings here are home to a cross-section of Athens' elite echelon of musicians, artists and writers. Landmarks as diverse as record producer John Keane's recording studio, the funky house where the B-52's first performed, and the Taco Stand dot the diverse neighborhood.

Around the corner from his residence is the site where Chesnutt played the first and only show his parents ever attended. The year was 1988, and Chesnutt had fled his family home for Athens four years previous, about to choke from the liberally restrictive rural air of Pike County. In the interim, he'd gained a sizable and dedicated following playing at the Uptown and 40 Watt clubs.

"My mom was always convinced that one day I would become a preacher for Jesus," says Chesnutt in an unmistakable Southern drawl that delivers his sketchy tableaus with equal parts reverence, mockery and disgust. "She said I had a certain gift and that some day I would be 'born again' and preach."

But Chesnutt's calling didn't exactly match the lofty hopes of his family. He'd found his worldly salvation in the boho heaven of Athens' insular music and art circles. He knew he had to show them not only where he was geographically, but where his mind and soul resided as well.

Out of respect to his folks' country sensibilities, he didn't show them the dark and smoky watering holes where he played to full houses of rapt, often-inebriated hipster audiences. Rather, he invited them to come see him play a solo show at the Unitarian church at the end of Meigs Street.

"I thought that would be a nice, safe place for them to see me," he says.

Chesnutt delivered the same pointed, observational, profane set of tunes for which he was known. In fact, the first tune he played shocked his family more than anything they might've witnessed at a club. "The first song was 'Speed Racer,'" recalls Chesnutt. "That song has a chorus that goes, 'I am an atheist.' Well, as soon as I hit that line, I heard the blubbering start. It was my mom. It continued through the entire show. It was pretty intense. It was exactly like coming out. It was hard to do, but I had to do it and say, 'This is who I am' to my folks."

After the show, the shell-shocked family retreated to a nearby Dunkin' Donuts to talk. "They said I was gonna go to hell," Chesnutt says quietly. "They were saying, 'We know you've read the Bible and someday you're gonna change. This is just a little phase you're going through.'"

Chesnutt's parents have since died, and his mother went to her grave believing that one day her son would straighten up and fly right.

But Chesnutt did receive some validation from his grandmother after the show at the Unitarian church, when she whispered in his ear, "There's things that everybody does, and everybody talks about, but you don't have to sing about them."

He grins. "That was beautiful. It's like, 'We know people do these things, and think these things, but you don't have to go and sing about them in front of everybody.' But things that everybody does, you have to sing about. I mean, I do, anyway."

Chesnutt's pulpits are stages all over the world. And from his 1990 debut right on up to his latest collaboration with Widespread Panic, Co-Balt, his message has always been a mixed bag of sin and redemption tempered by an admittedly cynical outlook, razor-sharp sense of humor and mannered Southern upbringing. "It's like that joke about how Southerners say 'fuck you,'" says Chesnutt. "They say 'bless your heart.'"

Chesnutt is the first to admit he's a mass of contradictions. "I don't believe in true love," he says, "Even though I've been married for 12 years."

Yet the hard-shell cynic has written and recorded seven albums filled with some of the most heartfelt and emotionally gripping material of recent vintage. Reminiscent of the best of Dylan -- an early obsession in his formative years -- Chesnutt's songs paint desperate populist characters in perilous and highly literate scenarios of love, desire and heartbreak.

"I have a romantic view of the world a lot of the time. But that's what makes me what I am: all these contradictions of deep cynicism and naive romanticism at the same time," he says. "I've got a lot of the South in me, but not as much as I did when I started out. I've been living in a bohemian bubble for so long that the Southern has been kind of sweated out of me a little. But it's all I know."

Chesnutt's often dark and unsettling Southern gothic songs are frequently laced together with threads of laugh-out-loud humor. "I use humor as a gravitational slingshot to kind of spin the song off into melancholy," he explains. "This is a kind of Vic cliche," he laughs. "But I always say that, even when I've got my head in a noose, I'm chuckling about how goofy I must look. There's nothing worse than taking yourself too seriously as a songwriter."

To that end, Athens is the perfect parsonage for this unorthodox preacher of reality.

"It's just a little small town in the South, and it's a bohemian freak show in other ways," says Chesnutt. "See, when I left home, I wanted to find the Paris before the first World War. And that's what Athens was for me. I knew there was a rock scene here, but it wasn't just that -- it was the poets, the painters, the eccentrics, the weird politicos. All of that. By the end of 1985, I was so happy, I thought, 'Man, this is great here. I'll never have to talk to normal people ever again.'"

An early supporter was Michael Stipe, who helped spread Chesnutt's ungodly message to the world by producing his first two albums. When jam-band kings Widespread Panic expressed their admiration for his songs, "I was shocked," says Chesnutt. "But I'm always shocked when anyone likes my songs."

"When I heard they liked me, I said, 'We gotta jam,'" he remembers. Soon the pairing begat a collection of songs penned by Chesnutt.

"It wasn't even intended for anyone other than us to hear; it was just for fun," recalls Panic bassist Dave Schools. The album, credited to the band name Brute, was eventually released in 1995 on Capricorn as Nine High A Pallet. Schools coined the name when he told Chesnutt to "play like a brute" and take on the role of bandleader and decision-maker. The name stuck.

"I'm very cynical and they're not, " says Chesnutt. "But I really like them as people, and I knew that we could do something together that was different than we normally are."

Both acts held weekly residencies at Athens clubs in the late '80s, and they even shared the same soundman. Longtime Panic sideman and producer John Keane also bridged the gap between the factions. It was Keane who corralled Panic into recording the tracks that would become the latest collection of Chesnutt/Panic material. "They were recording Don't Tell the Band last year, and I asked could we fit in some time to record some of Vic's songs," says Keane.

Chesnutt came to Keane's studio last January and played Panic the songs he had in mind for them. "We'd run through the songs three or four times and then record it, " says Chesnutt. "They'd punch in their flubs here and there, and while they were doin' that, I'd figure out what the next song would be."

The basic 11 tracks that appear on the Co-Balt were recorded in just two days. "You don't say no to working with Vic Chesnutt," says Schools.

One recurring sermon Chesnutt freely shares with his collaborators and fans is his own political views.

"I try not be a U.S.A. basher, but I am a U.S.A. hater in some ways," he says. "See, George W. Bush is an idiot. He sees everything in black and white; there is no gray. He's a very moral person and he sees it as either right or wrong, which means, basically, he's an idiot."

"So," Chesnutt continues with the tireless cadence of a radio evangelist, "he's the perfect president for America, because America is made up of 90 percent idiots."

Chesnutt doesn't spare the other side of the fence, either.

"Liberals have to realize that America isn't cut out for them. Liberals and left-thinking people cannot get their shit together. They're not well organized because they do see things where there are shady gray areas."

For now, though, as the world crumbles, Chesnutt is happy that the Brute album is finished and ready for release as a joint effort between Panic's WP Records and Keane's new Supercat label.

"We're gonna actually practice for two days before this Tabernacle show comin' up -- which is two days longer than we practiced for the album," says Chesnutt. "We're gonna have our stuff together. And we're gonna be really good. It will rock."

Brute plays a CD release show Tues., April 9, at the Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St. 8 p.m. $15. 404-659-9022. www.atlantaconcerts.com.

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