The phony earth below my feet 

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

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Next door to the high school is Ruth's Restaurant, a relatively nondescript establishment that gets name-checked in a song called "Band Camp" on Silver Lake. It's one of a couple of local landmarks mentioned on the record. The other big one is the Key Club in Griffin (mentioned on "Wren's Nest"), on the way back toward Athens.

Sundance, the cover band Vic played in, performed every Friday and Saturday night at the Key Club. The ramshackle light-blue building that once housed it has since been taken over by a tree service company.

"I learned a lot about life in that place," Chesnutt says. "It was a redneck bar. I saw fights in that place you would not believe. I saw people shot, knifed. I saw a guy bleeding to death in the parking lot. It was rough. That looms large in my history. When I was a teenager and saw the way adults acted, I never wanted to be a fuckin' adult."

His high school friend, Tony Johnson, played sax in the band, but the rest of Sundance, including his teacher, Randy Edgar, were all in their 30s and 40s. They played exclusively covers, mostly classic rock, though they did let Chesnutt out from behind his trumpet to sing lead on Devo's "Whip It."

"I wanted to introduce my songs to the band, but rednecks didn't like that shit. They want to hear what they know. I understand that. It was about makin' money. It wasn't about art. The organ player and lead singer had been in bands with Mitch Ryder in the late '60s and early '70s. They said they had to quit his band because he was a fag. That's the kind of people I'm talking about. But it was a great band."

It's more than the mere mention of places like the Key Club and Ruth's Restaurant that ties Chesnutt's songs to this community and to the South in general. To a certain extent, it's his language and the way he employs it. It's a unique mixture of the crude and the elegant: historical references, lunatic ramblings, pop culture detritus and corner-store bullshit sessions all mashed-up.

Take, for example, the sparse folk song "Bug," from his 1992 album, West Of Rome. The opening lines ("'Michelle Loves Willie'/ 'Our Little Sarah'/ 'Daughters of the American Revolution'/ 'Stryper Loves Jesus'") are essentially "found poetry" -- Chesnutt read them scrawled on sidewalks, walls and graves. And the chorus, "When the bug hits, that's the time to scratch it," was a homily uttered by Chesnutt's grandmother to mean, more or less, "seize the day."

The song's best line, however, is one whose charm can't quite be captured on the written page: "My roommates got married and I booted up/And a friend of ours told me I was disgusting." Chesnutt stretches the vowels in "booted up" to ridiculous lengths, and enunciates every syllable of "disgusting" -- somehow conveying not only his contempt for whoever hurled the insult, but also a proud, stubborn defiance and a measure of shame as well. That peculiar mix of pride and self-loathing that informs so much of Chesnutt's music has roots in his complex relationship with Pike County, its inhabitants and the entire rural South.

On the ride to Zebulon, Chesnutt confides that he'd been meaning to come back and visit for a while, but he just hadn't gotten around to it. Clearly, though, something more than inconvenience had kept him away. He had avoided high-school reunions over the years and had lost touch with most of his friends from the area. And while back in town, he was intent on not running into anyone he knew.

It's not that he holds a grudge against his hometown. Zebulon never rejected Chesnutt. Rather, he rejected it. And it's this fact that, perhaps, haunts him most about the place.

"It was too bad for me I couldn't deal with it," he says. "It's a great place to grow up and raise a family. But I just had a completely different set of beliefs. I had to go somewhere where people knew who T.S. Eliot was. I needed to talk to people who were atheists. Two homecoming queens -- that ain't gonna fly in my worldview. But I'm sad. I miss it."

Chesnutt still struggles to resolve how he can love a place so viscerally, yet hate so much of what it stands for. But there's something else going on here, too. It has to do with his wheelchair. Pike County is a tangible, living reminder of his life before the accident. To the people he knew then, he was the kid who climbed trees and hunted, rode his bike and played sports.


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