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Vic Chesnutt, Live in Studio 4A

Vic Chesnutt performs in NPR's Studio 4A.
Robin Hilton, NPR News
Vic Chesnutt performs in NPR's Studio 4A.
Chesnutt's latest CD, Silver Lake, is available on New West Records.
Chesnutt's latest CD, Silver Lake, is available on New West Records.

Songwriter Vic Chesnutt has often been called gifted, but his music — a spare, introspective and idiosyncratic brand of alternative folk rock — is decidedly non-commercial.

Born and raised in rural Georgia, Chesnutt writes intimate, Southern-flavored story songs that are at once crude and elegant; beautiful and gruesome; joyful and sad.

It's a complicated formula that has both worked and failed for Chesnutt in his 15 years as a recording artist. Critics swoon over his unpolished instrumentation and fragile poetry. Better-known artists like Madonna and the Smashing Pumpkins have covered his songs. But Chesnutt has yet to reach a major audience. Some find his music too gloomy. Others are turned off by Chesnutt's unpredictable live performances, famously ruined in the past by his chronic bouts with depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

On his latest album, Silver Lake, Chesnutt seems to say that's all behind him now. The songs are more upbeat and more produced than his previous work, though his homey narratives and disarming gallows humor are as present as ever.

Chesnutt tells NPR's Liane Hansen, "I spent a lot of time drinking to excess, and making big, gigantic mistakes. It was part of my character for a long time. I haven't 'drinked no liquor' in a long time. So that's good for me. I think my mental health is pretty good."

Chesnutt's music is, in his own words, "alarmingly personal, and maybe even a bit off-putting." But he also writes a lot of fiction. On the song Band Camp, Chesnutt tells the story of a high school romance spoiled by graduation.

"I don't know where it came from. None of it happened. I had no relationship with a senior, as happens in the song," Chesnutt says. "The narrator in this song doesn't let the other person grow up. It's really a dig on my lifestyle, in a way. I have lived the bohemian lifestyle and have refused to give up. So it's a dig at myself."

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