For singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, the creative life is straightforward. His quiet songs lay
bare emotional truths, and his unadorned concerts focus on his voice and acoustic
But on his sixth album, The Salesman And Bernadette, due Nov.
10, Chesnutt threw a wrench into this simple formula. He crafted a dense, 14-song collection loosely
assembled around the recollections of a fictional traveling businessman.
"It was like putting on a costume, in a way," Chesnutt, 33, said recently from his Athens,
Ga., home. "I got to speak in costume."
To complete the guise, Chesnutt eschewed quiet background musicians in
recording The Salesman And Bernadette, opting instead for
Nashville, Tenn.'s nine-piece country-and-horn crew, Lambchop.
The result is an album in which Chesnutt's wiry voice and sharp observations sound as if
they've been picked up and set down in new, off-center creative digs.
Not that anyone should listen to The Salesman And Bernadette as a "concept
album," as far as Chesnutt's concerned.
"It's like a photo album," Chesnutt said, although he was hesitant to describe the subjects
of the photos. "It doesn't tell a complete story. When you open up a photo album, there's
a story there, of course. But you have to read between the lines to know what the story is.
The album jumps around to all these separate little images from the Salesman's past."
Lambchop guitarist Kurt Wagner said Chesnutt's methodical system for recording the
songs -- in order as they appear on the album, over a series of weekends last year --
helped the band not only to think of the work as a whole, but also to dig into the material
and polish it in short order.
"The first day of the weekend, we'd record the more traditional way, where you'd layer
the song and build it up piece by piece, part by part," Wagner, 40, said. "In a way, we
were also learning the song through that process. Then, on Sunday, we would just record
them live. It almost seemed like it would get refined in just that 24-hour period."
As with all of his work, Chesnutt breathes life into The Salesman And Bernadette
with his well-thought-out phrasing. While his voice may sound closer to that of folk-rocker
Bob Dylan than to late crooner Frank Sinatra, Chesnutt wraps his mouth and his soul
around words as purposefully as both of those singers on songs such as
the new "Duty Free" and
Town"(RealAudio excerpt), from his last album.
"It's always very intentional," Chesnutt said of his unique enunciation. "If I have a line I've
written and I'm trying to put it into this song, a lot of times I have to squoosh and push and
pull and stretch and chop and bend and screw and glue the word to make it fit into my
parameters of the song."
Chesnutt's ability to invest himself fully in his work is one of the things that makes it so
appealing -- as well as one of the reasons his work is challenging for others to cover,
according to ex-Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh. Hersh contributed
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get- music/Hersh,_Kristin/Panic_Pure.ram">"Panic Pure"
music/Hersh,_Kristin/Panic_Pure.ram">"Panic Pure"(RealAudio excerpt) to
Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation (1996), a benefit album of Chesnutt
tributes that also included R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and others.
"I'm very separate from my musical self," Hersh, 32, said. "I have my life and my musical
self, and I don't feel like those two meet very often. Vic's voice is him, and that's
really rare. He sings the way he speaks; he writes songs the way he turns phrases. And
that's a hard thing to do."
While Chesnutt wrote much of The Salesman And Bernadette with Lambchop in
mind, some of the tracks hailed from several years past. The prolific songwriter won't
even hazard a guess as to how many albums' worth of material he's left unrecorded.
Assembling the new album became an exercise in creative selection.
"The way I narrowed down which songs to record is that they had to fit together in a
certain way," Chesnutt said. "They had to make this portrait of this Salesman character."
Chesnutt said he's proud of The Salesman And Bernadette, but he's humble
about what he referred to as the cathartic process of being a musician.
"I know it seems strange to people who don't write songs that a person sits around and
just thinks about the universe and plays with it in the imagination until [a song] comes up;
and then his soul is lightened and it enriches life," he said. "But then it turns other people
to say, 'Oh, this enriches my life too.' It's an amazing thing. And it's fun."
Gianni Sibilla contributed to this story.