The phony earth below my feet 

Vic Chesnutt returns to Pike County and sees no one he knows

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He points to a tree. "See that Magnolia? That was one of my favorite things to do. Climb up in that tree, hang out for hours and just watch people."

Driving through Zebulon with Chesnutt, it's not hard to imagine it as the kind of place the young artist began making the probing observations that would fill his songs:

"The filthy steps, the cold concrete, the phony earth below my feet," from 1992's "Sponge."

The "acorn squash," "hearty rows of okra" and "stand of sweet corn by the trickling creek," in 1996's "Degenerate."

The "little bitty baby [that] draws a nice clean breath from over his beaming momma's shoulder ... staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see, but [who] will stop staring when he's older," from 1996's "New Town."

"The tired old alcoholic, waxing bucolic" in 1998's "Square Room."

About a mile further down the road is Pike County High School. "Man, I owned this fuckin' school," Chesnutt says, as we drive up. "I wasn't like Fonzie or anything, but I was still kind of popular. The teachers liked me. Which is weird, because I was controversial. I was a professed atheist."

Chesnutt was a dedicated church-goer until the age of 13, when one day in church, he came to the realization it was all bullshit. The Bible wasn't true. Christians were hypocrites. He says he started crying right there in church because everything he'd been told was a lie.

To call his teenage break with God mere disillusionment understates both its importance in Chesnutt's worldview and the effect it had on his place in this small God-fearing community.

"It ruined my life," he says simply.

Over lunch in Athens a few years ago, he described this break as nothing less than a betrayal. "It really affected me deeply when I realized that a lot of what they told me is not right," he said. "This kind of betrayal led to this investigative nature I have in my songs, to seek below the surface."

It wasn't just Christianity that Chesnutt shook off. It was the closed-mindedness and racism that was passed down from one generation to the next. But despite assumptions about small, Southern towns, Zebulon didn't completely turn its back on its burgeoning liberal atheist. In fact, his creativity was nurtured by a handful of important people. Central among them was a band teacher named Randy Edgar, who Chesnutt calls "his mentor."

Edgar asked Chesnutt, then 16, to play trumpet in Sundance, a cover band that played at local bars. "I learned a lot about rock 'n' roll from that guy," he says. Edgar, he adds with all intended irony, eventually moved to Mississippi and found Jesus.

Chesnutt had fairly limited access to new music back then. Nearby Griffin had two record stores, but for music by people like Leonard Cohen, he had to go all the way to Atlanta. It wouldn't be until his senior year of high school that a friend who'd moved to England finally turned him on to punk rock. By then, he says, it was 1982, and "it was already too late."

There were others who helped Chesnutt open his mind: an editor at the local newspaper, a libertarian lawyer who worked in town, a few teachers and his high school principal, who used to pull Vic out of class just to hang out and talk.

"Their influence was kind of subversive," Chesnutt says. They encouraged him to "look beyond the facade, to see the crap," a quality that would eventually inform his songwriting. "There's a lot of Pike County in my songs. I don't speak with as much of a Southern voice as I used to, but my experience here as a Southerner, as a kind of free thinker trapped in a closed society, was important."

His parents always encouraged his intellectual independence, too, but were devastated when it led to atheism. We visit their grave sites, a small cemetery that had only recently been converted from a soybean field when Chesnutt's father become one of the inaugural burials there.

"They died thinking they wouldn't see their little boy in heaven," he says. They both died of cancer and Chesnutt believes their stress over his rejection of Jesus accelerated their decline.

It was early in his teenage years when Chesnutt realized that, unlike many of his classmates who'd live their whole lives in Pike County, he needed to get out.

"I wasn't Trenchcoat Mafia or anything. I mean, I was an angry young man in certain ways -- I read Mother Jones in high school -- but I was jovial about it. I was fun to hang out with. I made jokes. I was happy."

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