Vic Chesnutt Looks At Bright Side Of Capitol Split

Respected singer/songwriter eyes other labels for completed The Salesman Of Bernadette.

When the call recently came in to singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt from Capitol

Records, the news was both good and bad.

At least as far as Chesnutt was concerned, that is.

The bad news, he learned all-too-suddenly, was that his contract with Capitol

was being severed, just two months before the release of his second album for

the label. The good news was that Chesnutt was granted ownership of the

album, allowing him to take it to other outlets, a rarity in the industry.

"My A&R [Artists and Repertoire] guy called me and told me," Chesnutt, 33,

said recently from his Athens, Ga., home. "I'm really looking forward to the

future, in seeing what will happen. This record is incredible and I'm really proud

of it."

The album was culled from more than 40 potential songs and recorded in

Nashville, Tenn., last year with the band Lambchop, a nine-piece, brass-backed

jug band.

After putting so much time into the project, Chesnutt certainly had reason to feel

wronged, especially after having proved his artistic abilities over the course of

four records for the tiny Texas Hotel label, plus 1996's About To Choke

(RealAudio excerpt of

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Chesnutt,_Vic/New_Town.ram">"New

Town") for Capitol. He had garnered accolades not only from the

music press, but from such notable peers as R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe (who

produced his first two records) and the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan.

Chesnutt's work was even the subject of a 1996 tribute record, Sweet Relief

II: Gravity Of The Situation, which featured interpretations of his work by the

likes of techno-punks Garbage, singer/songwriter Joe Henry with pop diva

Madonna (RealAudio excerpt of

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Henry,_Joe/Guilty_By_Association.ram">

"Guilty By Association"), power-rockers Cracker and the folkie duo

Indigo Girls.

But Capitol's decision to let him go was hardly the first obstacle Chesnutt has

faced. As a heartbreaking songwriter with an occasionally sour, Southern

twang, he's had to earn his core of loyal fans. What's more, before he ever

recorded a note, he had to force himself to stare down the car accident that left

him bound to a wheelchair.

The decision to drop Chesnutt came only a month after Capitol Records CEO

Gary Gersh left his post, citing philosophical differences with the company.

While some may see Gersh's departure as a catalyst in Chesnutt's being

dropped (the singer/songwriter was brought onto the label during Gersh's

tenure), the label offered no comment to back that.

"By mutual agreement Vic is free to find a home for the record on another label,"

according to a Capitol Records spokesperson who refused to be identified and

would not comment further on the matter.

The label's move was simply the latest of the many challenges before the

singer/songwriter -- and, in Chesnutt's eyes, no less conquerable.

"They just decided that it would probably take a lot of time for this record to

come out with [Gersh's exit] happening," Chesnutt said. "So they told me I

should go find someone else to put it out. Which is a great thing. I was really

excited, because that doesn't really happen that often."

Although Chesnutt is not hesitant to talk about the recent changes, he also

isn't eager to dwell on them.

You could hear the disappointment in his voice when he spoke of Capitol being

close to his heart as a Southerner -- it was founded by fellow Georgia

songwriter Johnny Mercer -- but he put that aside out of respect for the Capitol

employees he says he'll miss.

He also understands that the label is a business, and that About To

Choke (the first release of a two-album deal), which sold just 15,000 copies,

probably offered little promise to the label.

"They have to do what they have to do," Chesnutt said. "It's not a charity case."

But former Minutemen and fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt said this type of move

is often about more than record sales. Front-office changes, he said, tend to

ripple throughout record companies, right down to the artists.

"They used to say if you lose your A&R guy, you're gone," Watt, who records as

a solo artist for Columbia, said. "Now it's if you lose the boss of the company,

you're gone. When [a CEO leaves], people get scared. They all run to their

fiefdoms and they hunker down. Anything that's dangling, that looks like a risk,

they cut all ties."

One reason Chesnutt has trained his gaze resolutely on the future is that he

feels utterly confident about his new album, a 14-song collection called The

Salesman Of Bernadette. Although he has not yet secured a new home for

the disc, there are several options pending for its release, Chesnutt said.

"The record is like my little In the Wee Small Hours," Chesnutt said,

referring to classic crooner Frank Sinatra's 1955 classic, often cited as the first

concept album. "I started piecing songs together into this little story. In my mind,

all the songs are about this group of people. It's pretty much about the

Salesman, and his thoughts about this Bernadette and her crowd."

Ginger Hatten, a 44-year-old Chesnutt fan from Wyoming, says that, to this day,

she's moved to tears by Chesnutt's early work and that she's looking forward to

the eventual release of the new album.

"Thank goodness they let him make the album and it's finished, so he doesn't

have to go through the whole process again," said Hatten, who since 1995 has

maintained the "One Of Not Many Vic Chesnutt Pages" website.

Despite the premature end to Chesnutt's relationship with Capitol, the singer

says the experience has far from soured him on the industry.

"I don't necessarily think signing to Capitol was such a crazy idea," he said. "I

might be at another major soon, who knows? I don't think I've reached my

selling potential."