Songs Of Survival And Reflection: 'At The Cut'
At the age of 18, singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt was in a car accident that changed his life. He became paraplegic, but also began to invest more time in his music. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. discovered Chesnutt playing at a club in Athens, Ga. and went on to produce Chesnutt's first two albums, Little and West of Rome.
After a PBS documentary broadcast his story, celebrated musicians — including Nanci Griffith, Garbage, Madonna and Sparklehorse — came together to record a tribute album in 1996 entitled Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation.
Chesnutt has recorded over fifteen albums and is known for his "Southern Gothic" storytelling style. He's collaborated with several artists, from the blues fusion band Widespread Panic to alt-country group Lambchop to — most recently — Guy Picciotto, of the band Fugazi.
Chesnutt and Picciotto join host Terry Gross to discuss their latest album together, At The Cut. Chesnutt also spoke about learning (and re-learning) the guitar, his health situation and flirting with death.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Vic Chesnutt. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles describes some of Chesnutt's recent songs as contemplating, not just mortality, but also the broader inevitability of collapse and decay.
Chesnutt had a brush with mortality in a 1983 car accident, when he was 18. After the accident, he lost the use of his legs, and his hands and arms were compromised. Seven years after the accident, Chesnutt recorded his first album.
As Pareles points out, if Chesnutt's songs were more conventional, they would have the makings of folk rock, but he and his musicians see other possibilities.
On his new album and on the preceding one, Chesnutt is backed by guitarist Guy Picciotto, formerly of the post-punk band Fugazi, and members of the Montreal band Thee Silver Mt. Zion.
The band has created a more dramatic and dissonant setting for Chesnutt's dark songs. The liner notes state that, though everyone had a hand in the arranging, Guy undoubtedly carried the most weight. So we invited him to join us for the first part of our interview with Vic Chesnutt. Let's start with the opening track of Chesnutt's new CD "At The Cut." This is his song "Coward."
(Soundbite of song, "Coward")
Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Musician): (Singing) The courage of the coward is greater than all others. A scaredy cat'll scratch you if you back him in a corner. But I, I, I, I am a coward. But I, I, I, I am a coward. Courage born of despair and impotence...
GROSS: Vic Chesnutt, Guy Picciotto, welcome to FRESH AIR. That is one really powerful song. Let's start talking about the lyric, which Vic Chesnutt, you wrote. The courage of the coward, greater than all others. That's a quote. Tell us where it's from and what it means to you.
Mr. CHESNUTT: It's from "McTeague," a Frank Norris book, and I wrote it down in my notebook, where I write lines that I come across. And it was a very telling line because I was coming to see myself as a coward, and it was a very illuminating line in my own personal story.
GROSS: Why were you starting to see yourself as a coward?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, it's like, and I've said this before, it's kind of like when you realize you're an alcoholic. You know, it takes a while to start coming to this realization, and I was coming to this realization that I am a flat-out coward.
GROSS: Like, in what sense do you think of yourself as a coward?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, in personal relationships, I don't want to confront my enemies and things like this. You know, I mean, in many ways, I'm a coward. I break up in email, instead of calling you to your face. That kind of thing. You know what I mean? And when I came across this line, it felt real and felt true. So I wrote it down, and then later when I came to be writing the song, I knew, you know, this was all part of the song.
GROSS: There's another quote that you use in the lyric, "a courage born of despair and impotence." Tell us about that quote and what it means to you.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah, that comes from "The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth - Roth or whatever his name is. It's another line that it felt true. You know, it was kind of the flip side of this coward - of the courage of the coward. It kind of - they dovetailed nicely together and helped illuminate this idea I had of, you know, hello, my name is Vic Chesnutt, and I am a coward - statement.
GROSS: Now, Guy, the arrangement that you did for the song is so strong. The song is about being a coward, but the instrumentation is just so powerful and strong. It starts off quietly, and then it just kind of builds and builds, and the song turns into a howl, and the music turns into... I don't know. You describe what you tried to do and why.
Mr. GUY PICCIOTTO (Guitarist): Well, I can't take really credit for the arrangement of that song. I mean, I think Vic had the song formulated in his head, and I think the arrangement, the way it sounds is just born out of the fact of the scale of the band that's playing on it and the different instrumentation that everyone has and the kind of arrangement - I have to say of all the songs that we've done with Vic, it was - I don't even remember even discussing the arrangement. Everyone just played it, and it sounded like that.
The funny thing is, on the record, we were convinced it wasn't powerful or howling or crazy enough, like, because we've done it live so many times that we were - live it just felt like the most, you know, monolithic hurricane of all time. And then we recorded it, and we just kept fighting against the fact that we thought it sounded small, and no one else seems to think it does. So I'm really glad. I think we were just - we were just used to, you know, being in front of the amps and hearing how massive it was that we kind of lost track of the scale of the song.
And the arrangement is really Vic's. I mean, he wrote the melody lines. He wrote, you know, where the big chords enter, and really, I think it's just the fact that the group that backs Vic up, everyone's playing kind of diff- instruments in different ranges, and when you combine them all together, it just becomes a mountain, you know.
GROSS: Vic, how did you learn to write with chords? I mean, what did you study that introduced you to chords?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, my granddad taught me how to play guitar in the late '70s, and I know the majors and minors. That's pretty much it. I'm a folkie. You know, I can play "Blowin' in the Wind" in any key.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHESNUTT: Without...
Mr. PICCIOTTO: I'll say this... I was just going to interject and toot your horn for you, because I've known a lot of guitar players in my life, but I don't think I've ever known anyone who knows, like, the territory of the fret board the way Vic does. Like, when he's talking about transposing keys of a song on a fret board, like, most guitar players, you'd have to - me in particular - you'd have to sit there and really crunch it out in your head. But Vic - Vic just knows - I've never met anyone like him. I think it's because his grandfather really drilled into him playing a song - what was the song that your granddad made you play over and over again and change keys on?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. This is how he taught me how to play guitar. My granddaddy, he would show me the chords to "Sweet Georgia Brown" in G, and then we would play that song for an hour without stopping, and while my granddad would play lead over it.
(Soundbite of humming)
Mr. CHESNUTT: And I would play the chords, and then that would be the lesson. And then a week later, we would come, and we would do, okay, "Sweet Georgia Brown" in A flat, and then we would do it that way, and we did it until we played all 11 keys, and that was it.
GROSS: Did you enjoy that?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I loved it. It's so much fun. My granddad was such a great guitar player that it's fun to listen to him, like, improvise these leads, you know. He would go play it through pretty much straight, you know...
(Soundbite of humming)
Mr. CHESNUTT: And then he'd go off, and it was pretty much fun to watch him. And he was having fun doing it. He didn't say anything to me, like good job or, you know, anything. We just sat there. It was a silent exercise, and it's one of my great joys of my life, is thinking back on that.
GROSS: Guy, you had said that everybody knew what they wanted to play after they, you know, heard the song. So there wasn't an arrangement, per se. How did you know what you wanted to play?
Mr. PICCIOTTO: It was pretty straightforward because we were, like, all right, we're going to have all the guitars follow this, you know, lead line, and some people are going to deviate. And we're playing with a violin, we're playing with another guitar that's tuned differently. We've got a stand-up bass, we've got, you know, organ - all these different instruments. So everyone just, kind of, found their slots.
But we knew that when you those - the heavy chords kicked in, we wanted everyone on top of them. I mean, it just made sense for it to be, you know, a real punch in the gut. And Vic's songs are deceptive, because when he plays them by himself, they're so beautiful that part of you is like I just don't want to touch this. It's like - and a lot of Vic's records are really just Vic playing and singing, and it's masterful.
But there's so - like, as a musician, there's so much in Vic's chordings, and there's so much in his melodies that you can also build on top of them. You can build these structures that are quite elaborate. And his material, like - you know, his music is the foundation, and it can support a lot of architecture. And I feel like that's the case with a song like "Coward."
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Vic Chesnutt and guitarist and arranger Guy Picciotto. Guy is featured on Vic Chesnutt's new CD, "At the Cut." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Vic Chesnutt and Guy Picciotto. And Vic Chesnutt is a singer and songwriter. His new CD is called "At the Cut." And Guy Picciotto used to be with the band Fugazi, and he's a member of the band that backs Vic Chesnutt on the new CD "At the Cut" and also on Vic Chesnutt's previous CD, which is called "North Star Deserter."
Let me play another song from "At the Cut," and this is called "Flirted With You All My Life," and it's a song about flirting with suicide. So let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it musically and lyrically.
(Soundbite of song, "Flirted With You All My Life")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) I am a man. I am self-aware, and everywhere I go, you're always right there with me. I've flirted with you all my life, even kissed you once or twice, and to this day, I swear it was nice, but clearly I was not ready.
When you touched a friend of mine, I thought I would lose my mind, but I found out with time that really, I was not ready, no, no, cold death, cold death, oh death, really, I'm not ready.
GROSS: That's "Flirted With You All My Life" from Vic Chesnutt's new CD "At the Cut." Before we talk about what's happening lyrically, in that CD, Guy, I wanted to ask you about what's going on musically. You know, this is a song about flirting with suicide, flirting with death. So what did you think should be happening musically? And let me just say something, that that slow drumbeat in the background, it sounds like a death march.
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Yeah, that song is interesting. I first heard Vic do that song by himself in Vienna. I was part of a trio that was - Vic and I, we played in a trio together, where he was performing in Vienna, and we'd done a concert of a bunch of songs, and then for the encore, he came out and played that song, and it was the first time I'd ever heard it. And it's one of the songs that wrecks a room. I mean, it was like you could just hear everybody's heart break, and we were all stunned, including, like, the guys who run the record label that puts the record out. And we were all just like man, you know, it really set us back on our heels.
So when we were going to do the new record, everyone was like, well, that song has to be on the record. And again, it was one of those songs where, like, man, should we just, like, let Vic play the song and just leave it alone? But a couple of things happened with the way that song ended up coming out, musically.
One thing was, one of the other guitar players, Chad, started playing this lick against the line that Vic had, and it was - it was almost perverse because it had this kind of lilt to it. I mean, the song is, you know, quite a heavy lyric, and then the combination of that guitar lick, and then a mistake happened where the drummer was playing this beat, and the bass player was coming in off a different one. And it was - so the kick would hit, and then the bass note would pluck, and they were off each other, and Vic was like ooh, like, you know, tasty.
And then - so that ended up being the kind of - the song ended up having this groove, and it was - you know, when I saw him play it before, you wouldn't have called it a - it didn't have a groove, per se. And then it - the song just kind of - it was, you know, a series of - the way songs like this kind of come together, there's like a series of accidents or ideas or people putting things out there, and then it's like weird LEGO where things just start fitting.
GROSS: Vic, let's talk about the lyric. The song is about flirting with suicide, but from what I've read, you've done more than flirt with it. It's something you've tried.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Right. Well, this song is a love song. It's a suicide's breakup song with death. You know, I've attempted suicide three or four times. It didn't take. And this is really a breakup song with death. You know, it's talking about flirting with, you know, flirting - I had flirted with death my whole life, you know. Even as a young kid, I was sick and almost died a few times. And then suicide attempts - it's a kind of - you know, it's a breakup song.
GROSS: Did you try to kill yourself even before the accident?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.
GROSS: And after the accident?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.
GROSS: And each time when you came through, when as you put it, death didn't take, were you relieved or sorry?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, you know, it's more complex. You can't... I couldn't say either. I mean, you know, sometimes I'd be angry.
GROSS: Angry that...
Mr. CHESNUTT: Angry that they revived me, you know? I'd be like, how dare you? You know, how dare you people interfere in my, you know, what is obviously my life, my wish? But you know, of course, as the hours and days wear on, you realize well, there is joy to be had. I mean, this is how I - I'm sure everybody's different, you know, just how I, how it struck me. You know, when the days would wear on, you know, I would start to, you know, see some joy again in the world and be like whew, I eked - I squeaked that one out.
GROSS: This is such an emotionally heavy album. Is it hard to write a song like this, about flirting with suicide, or is it therapeutic to write it, or you know...?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, it occurred to me that I would like to sing this song where at the first half of it, you think I'm singing it about a lover, and then it becomes obvious that I'm singing about death. Death is my lover. And it took a bit of time to get it to fit just right and to work. And when we were actually cutting the track, it was hard to make it through without kind of breaking down emotionally and just crying. You know, it's a heavy song, no doubt about it.
GROSS: Now, one of the heavy lines in it is about your mother. You write, when my mom was cancer sick, she fought but then succumbed to it, but you made her beg for it. Lord Jesus please, I'm ready. How old were you when she died?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I was in my mid-20s. And that's the thing about a suicidal person, I think, is that, you know, I mean, right after my mom died was, like, one of my last suicide attempts. It really destroyed me. My dad had died a year before, and that was the end of my whole close family, who had all died off within two or three years of each other: my grandpa, my grandma, my other grandma, my mom and my dad. They all died off in a couple of years. And so I felt lost, and I was depressed. But also you see - a suicidal person, when you see somebody else die of natural causes or whatever, for me it's also a kind of wakeup call.
GROSS: Tell me more about what, the effect that had?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, like when my friends have died or something like that, it made me feel silly. My sorrow seemed silly and that I'm not ready to go. As I said in the song, the sweet relief, I'm not - I don't deserve the sweet relief of death yet, because I haven't accomplished my tasks yet.
Mr. CHESNUTT: But I do want to say one thing, though, about this song.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. CHESNUTT: This song is a joyous song, though. I mean, it's a heavy song, but it is a joyous song. This is a breakup song with death, you know what I mean?
GROSS: Right, because you're saying clearly, I wasn't ready.
Mr. CHESNUTT: I'm not ready to kill myself, you know. It's a joyous song, so -and it has these very heavy aspects, you know, but it's a joyous song.
GROSS: Well, Guy, I want to thank you for talking with us. I'm going to ask Vic to stick around. We're going to have a kind of biographical interview. But thanks for talking with us about what's happening instrumentally on Vic Chesnutt's new CD, and thanks very much, and Guy plays guitar and has done some of the arranging on the new CD "At the Cut," and he was a co-founder of the band Fugazi. Thanks and all the best to you. Be well. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Thank you, Terry. See you, Vic.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Bye, Guy.
GROSS: Vic Chesnutt will be back in the second half of the show. His new CD is called "At the Cut." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter, singer and guitarist Vic Chesnutt. His new album, "At The Cut," features several songs about mortality. He survived a serious car accident in 1983 that left him unable to walk and diminished the use of his arms and hands.
Can I ask you about the accident? Is that all right?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Sure. Of course.
GROSS: Would you tell us what you know of what happened?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I don't remember anything of it. I don't remember the whole day really. I was so drunk. You know, it's quite a cliche: a stupid teenager out drunk and then I had a drunk-driving car wreck and broke my neck.
GROSS: Was anyone else hurt?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Nobody else was in the car. I ran into a ditch and flipped over and just, you know, broke my neck.
GROSS: How much movement did you lose?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I'm a quadriplegic from my neck down. I'm, you know, I'm an incomplete spinal cord injury. That means that I have feeling all over my body and I can move my legs a little bit and, so it's a very strange, very strange injury. It's not like your typical spinal cord injury. It's very different.
GROSS: It sounds like you feel enough to feel physical pain but you don't have enough feeling to actually be able to move.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I can move my legs a little bit. I mean I can't walk.
Mr. CHESNUTT: I mean I can walk with a walker, somewhat, but not really functionally. If I fell down I'd never be able to get up.
GROSS: Right. But you play guitar, right?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I play guitar. Yes. My fingers are definitely affected greatly by my injury. Greatly. In fact, yeah, they - my fingers don't move too good at all.
GROSS: So how do you manage to play?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I just figured out a way to do it, you know? It's very strange. It's hard work to do it. It's not easy.
GROSS: Now, I know some quadriplegics don't have a lot of breath support and it's hard for them to sing.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah.
GROSS: But you don't seem to have trouble with that.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I think one half of my diaphragm is completely paralyzed, the other one has some, you know, I think that one half of my diaphragm kind of works.
GROSS: How did your music change? Where were you headed before the accident, musically?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I played - my chords were a lot different. There was a lot more kind of odd chords and things in my songs before I broke my neck. There were a little more jazzy chords that my granddad taught me and a lot more kind of, yeah, strange chords and not just open G's and E minors and thing like that. Those were not acceptable before my accident. I also, you know, I was 18 when I broke my neck. I didn't really have anything to say at the time. I wasn't sure what was - I just didn't know what I wanted to say. It was only after I broke my neck and after even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say. And physically, when I could start playing the guitar again after about a year, I realized that all I could play were these kinds of you know, G, F, C - those kind of chords. And so it was going to be - well, that's what I was going to do.
GROSS: You could only play those chords for technical reasons because you didn't have enough mobility to play chords more complicated?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: So you say it was after the accident that you really felt you found yourself musically. Let me play a song from the first album that you made which is called "Little." And it was recorded in - was it 1990?
Mr. CHESNUTT: 1988.
GROSS: 1988. So this is...
Mr. CHESNUTT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...about five years after the accident?
Mr. CHESNUTT: 19 - yeah. Five years after. Right.
GROSS: Okay. The song I want to play is "Speed Racer." So tell us about the song before we hear it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. Well, it's a kind of a little manifesto, I guess, in a way. It's kind of like, you know, a young man's realization of - where a young man's epiphany about his worldview, you know? And it's me. It's straight, you know, me as a young man. I was sitting in a college class and I had this realization. And there it is, this song, you know, "Speed Racer." It's an atheist manifesto.
GROSS: Okay. So this is Vic Chesnutt from his first album back in 1988. The album's called "Little." The song is "Speed Racer."
(Soundbite of song, "Speed Racer")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) I think it's my attention span eclipted by TV at an early age. Well, who heard the radio when you are five years old? I used to watch "Speed Racer" with that hyper attitude that carried me here to this, a fluorescent enlightenment. I'm not a victim, I'm not a victim. Oh, I am intelligent, I am intelligent. I'm not a victim, I'm not a victim. Oh, I am an atheist, I am an atheist.
GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt from his first album recorded in 1988. You described it as an atheist manifesto. And, you know, this song proclaims: I'm not a victim. I am intelligent. I am an atheist. Why did you feel that you needed to declare in a song that you are an atheist?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I'm not sure. I mean it was a joyful experience to sing the song on stage in that - in those days and I felt like it was an epiphany and it was, it is a revelation. And it's an exaltation, you know? And it's thrilling to sing this, you know? I mean it's in the same way that Christians sing Gospel songs at the top of their lungs, you know, I'm an atheist and I sing about my worldview at the top of my lungs with a great amount of joy and conviction.
GROSS: One of the things I find interesting about like the declaration is that like so many people after something like horrible has happened in their life, they turn to God whether they believed or not before. And you obviously did not.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Right. Well, I'd already - I had my whole - my religious conversion at age of 12 or 13 or something like that. So that had no effect on my worldview at all. And...
GROSS: What did your parents and grandparents have to say about that?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well they were, of course, they were not happy. I mean they were Evangelical Christians and they were not happy. They were in fact, bummed. In every...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHESNUTT: ...every conversation I had with them from that time - about 12 years old until they died - was tinted with this disappointment and also them telling me well, you know, you're going to go to hell.
GROSS: Did it get worse after the accident? Did they tell you that now you really had to pray?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, there was a great deal of friction because they were trying to bring in healers and things. And I ended up for a month living with this faith-healer-type person in Tupelo, Mississippi, who tortured me with acupuncture and he didn't know what he was doing. But my parents firmly believed that faith - this guy was a faith healer - could heal me. And I went through with it just because I love my parents but I had zero faith in this guy. You know, the Holy Spirit fixing my spinal cord injury, I had zero faith in that.
GROSS: So did he blame you for not healing - because when he didn't heal you, did he blame you since you didn't have faith in him and that was why he couldn't heal you?
Mr. CHESNUTT: He did. He did. He did. Yeah. He did.
Mr. CHESNUTT: I mean was giving me acupuncture. I mean this is a, you know...
GROSS: And yet, he wasn't an acupuncturist is the point you're making, right? Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHESNUTT: No. He was not an acupuncturist.
Mr. CHESNUTT: No. No.
GROSS: All right.
Mr. CHESNUTT: But, you know, it was a great, I mean my parents did feel like I had a great gift. They said you've got a great gift. Your music, you have a great gift. You could be a great preacher. But you are doing the opposite of that, and it broke their hearts.
GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Vic Chesnutt. His new album is called "At The Cut." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with songwriter, singer and guitarist Vic Chesnutt. His new album is called "At The Cut."
I want to play another song from your new CD, "At The Cut," and this is a song called "Granny" that's about one of your grandmothers. You had mentioned that your grandfather was a guitarist and singer and he taught you how to play guitar. Is this grandmother - was she married to him or is she a different grandmother?
Mr. CHESNUTT: No, this is my - this is the other one. This is the other grandmother.
GROSS: So tell us about the song.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, yeah. This is a very strange song. This song is the only one I've ever done this with but I dreamed it. I dreamt it completely as is on this album. I was in a hotel room in Toronto and I dreamt this song. I was looking at my granny. She was at the kitchen sink and I was looking up at my granny from the perspective of a child. And I was crying in my dream. And then I woke up and my - the pillow was sopping wet. My face was all wet and so obviously I was actually crying. And I realized: Holy moly, this is a great song. And so I reached over and I got the hotel stationery and pen and I wrote down the lyrics as exactly as they were in my dream. And then I reached over and got my guitar and I figured out the chords. And wow, there it is. Straight from my subconscious to the recording tape. I mean it's an incredible thing that's never happened to me before.
GROSS: And does the song come out of real life?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I mean it's pretty much - I mean my gran - something I could sing to my granny. I mean, in my dream, I was singing it to my granny. The last line about you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart, she always told me that. And it's about, you know, she said that I came around just when, you know, not a year after her husband died, and like I had a special place in her heart because of that. So I mean it's really, you know, very much straight out of my life and straight out of my subconscious.
GROSS: Okay. This is Vic Chesnutt with his song "Granny" from his new CD, "At The Cut."
(Soundbite of song, "Granny")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Granny, oh Granny, where did your husband, my granddaddy go? Where did your husband, my granddaddy go? She said he went off to heaven just before you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before you were born. And she said you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life, and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life, and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life, and the beat of my heart.
GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt from his new CD, "At the Cut." And that song is called "Granny." So, were you very close with the grandmother who you wrote that song for?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. My - that granny, it's my dad's mom. She lived in the house with us. And so, you know, she kind of took care of us. My mom and dad were commuters. They had a long drive from Pike County to the Atlanta airport and to downtown Atlanta. So, they were gone before I got up in the morning and they came home late in the evening. And so, my granny was there to take care of me and my sister. And yeah, she was great. I was pretty close with her. You know, we butted heads a lot, too, of course. But yeah, I loved her.
GROSS: I read that you're in debt like $50,000 because of health insurance issues.
Mr. CHESNUTT: That's right.
GROSS: So - and this is because you had a series of surgeries and although you pay a lot for your health insurance, it didn't cover all of it. Is that - do I have that right?
Mr. CHESNUTT: That's exactly true, yeah.
GROSS: Uh-huh. So, what are your thoughts now as you watch the health care legislation controversy play out?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Wow. I have been amazed and confused by the health care debate. We need health care reform. There is no doubt about it, we really need health care reform in this country. Because it's absurd that somebody like me has to pay so much, it's just too expensive in this country. It's just ridiculously expensive. That they can take my house away for a kidney stone operation is -that's absurd.
GROSS: Is that what you're facing the possibility of now?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. I mean, it could - I'm not sure exactly. I mean, I don't have cash money to pay these people. I tried to pay them. I tried to make payments and then they finally ended up saying, no, you have to pay us in full now. And so, you know, I'm not sure what exactly my options are. I just - I really - you know, my feeling is that I think they've been paid, they've already been paid $100,000 from my insurance company. That seems like plenty. I mean, this would pay for like five or six of these operations in any other country in the world. You know, it affects - I mean, right now I need another surgery and I've been putting it off for a year because I can't afford it. And that's absurd, I think.
I mean, I could actually lose a kidney. And, I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again. I don't want to die, especially just because of I don't have enough money to go in the hospital. But that's the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can't get health insurance.
GROSS: Is it true you can't get good health insurance?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I can't get - I'm uninsurable. The only reason I have any insurance now is because I was on Capitol Records for a while. And I had excellent health insurance there. And then when I got dropped from Capitol, I Cobra'd my insurance for as long as it was legally possible. And then -which was insanely expensive, to Cobra this very nice insurance. And then, when that ran out, the insurance company said they could offer me one last thing and that is hospitalization. It only covers hospital bills. That's all it covers. And it's still $500 a month. So, it doesn't pay for my drugs, my doctors or anything like that. All it pays for is hospitalization. And yet, I still owe all this money on top of that.
GROSS: Wow. Well, I wish you the best with your health and your music. And I really want to thank you...
Mr. CHESNUTT: Thank you.
GROSS: ...a lot for talking with us.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Oh, I'm honored, honored beyond belief.
GROSS: Vic Chesnutt's new CD is called "At the Cut." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.