From his 1990 debut, Little, to his newly released ninth record, Silver Lake, Chesnutt's toyed with different instrumentation, production and arrangements, but the exacting details that have continually poured from his writing have root in his rural childhood in Pike County, Georgia.
Driving through Pike County 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 "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."
Pike County was home to a large black population, and according to Chesnutt, everyone was racist. At Pike County High School two homecoming queens were elected -- one black, one white -- because there were enough blacks that a straight vote would've likely yielded only a black queen.
"Man, I owned that fuckin' school," Chesnutt says, as we drive up to the school. "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.
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, Pike County 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 & roll from that guy," he says. Edgar, he adds with all intended irony, eventually moved to Mississippi and found Jesus.
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."
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 was happy."
Sundance, the cover band he played in, performed every Friday and Saturday night at a place called the Key Club. "I learned a lot about life in that place," Chesnutt says. "It was a redneck bar. I saw fights that you would not believe. I saw people shot, knifed. I saw a guy bleeding to death in the parking lot. 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."
It's more than the mere mention of places like the Key Club that ties Chesnutt's songs to his 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."
On the ride to Zebulon (a small town in Pike County that's an hour south of Atlanta), 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. 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. Pike County 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 his accident. To the people he knew then, he was the kid who climbed trees and hunted, rode his bike and played sports.
"After I broke my neck, I symbolically broke my Pike County connection in a way," he says. "I knew it would trip people out. My hipster buddies, they were cool with it, but I wanted to move on. I didn't want to reinvent myself so much as I needed to grow."
The stretch of road where Chesnutt flipped his car into a ditch half a lifetime ago is unremarkable. In fact, he had trouble finding the exact spot on the drive into Zebulon. There are a string of ranch-style houses set back from the road, and he wrecked on one of those lawns.
One has a huge Confederate flag hanging in the window. Chesnutt sees it and laughs. "Yeah. It was probably that one. That'd be purrr-fect."
There's something undeniably twisted and poetic about the image of Vic Chesnutt crashing into the Confederate flag. It plays right into all the Southern gothic, mythical, metaphorical mumbo-jumbo so frequently associated with him and his music. There's only one problem: It's not true. Driving further along the road, Chesnutt realizes the crash site is almost definitely further down.
Vic's 1993 song "Gluefoot" contains a great line: "I want to blame my heritage for my leisurely demise." But in real life, it's just not that simple. His songs have been consumed with subverting myths and tearing down facades to get at the real truth. And the real truth about Chesnutt ultimately exists in the gray areas between his pride and guilt over his heritage, his atheism and his wheelchair, and in his love/hate relationship with Pike County.
Of the accident, Chesnutt says, "It's a cliche. A teenager gets drunk and flips his car."
The truth is Vic Chesnutt didn't crash into a house with a Confederate flag. He just crashed.
Vic Chesnutt performs at the Evening Muse on Tuesday, July 15. Call the club at 704-376-3737 for details.