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Songs Of Survival And Reflection: 'At The Cut.'

Vic Chesnutt was paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 18, but he's still a massively productive songwriter. Chesnutt has fifteen albums under his belt and his songs have been covered by Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, and R.E.M. His new album, At The Cut, is a collaboration with Guy Picciotto of the band Fugazi.


Other segments from the episode on December 1, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 1, 2009: Interview with VIc Chesnutt and Guy Picciotto; Review of Thomas Mallon's book "Yours Ever: People and Their Letters."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Songs Of Survival And Reflection: “At The Cut”


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, that he and his musicians see other

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 (Singer): (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. (Unintelligible).

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 into 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 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 folkey. You
know, I can play "Blowin' in the Wind" in any key.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHESNUTT: Without…

Mr. PICCIOTTO: 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 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, 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 recordings, 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

(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 drum beat
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,

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 them 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 - I 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

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

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, it occurred to me that I would like to sing this song where
at the first half of it, you’d 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 sorrows seemed silly in 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.

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

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. CHESTNUTT: Sure. Of course.

GROSS: Would you tell us what you know of what happened?

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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

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. CHESTNUTT: Well, I can move my legs a little bit. I mean I can't walk.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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

GROSS: So how do you manage to play?

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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.


GROSS: But you don’t seem to have trouble with that.

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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

GROSS: How did your music change? Where were you headed before the accident,

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 1988.

GROSS: 1988. So this is...

Mr. CHESTNUTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...about five years after the accident?

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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 Chestnutt from his first album back in 1988. The
album's called "Little." The song is "Speed Racer."

(Soundbite of song, "Speed Racer")

Mr. CHESTNUTT: (Singing) I think it's my attention span clipped 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 Chestnutt 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. CHESTNUTT: 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 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

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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. CHESTNUTT: 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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHESTNUTT: ...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. CHESTNUTT: 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 on
this faith-healer-type person in Tupelo, Mississippi, who (unintelligible) 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. CHESTNUTT: He did. He did. He did. Yeah. He did.

GROSS: And...

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHESTNUTT: No. He was not an acupuncturist.

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: All right.

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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 Chestnutt. 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 Chestnutt. 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

Mr. CHESTNUTT: No, this is my - this is the other one. This is the other

GROSS: So tell us about the song.

Mr. CHESTNUTT: 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 a 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. CHESTNUTT: 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 Chestnutt with his song "Granny" from his new CD, "At
The Cut."

(Soundbite of song, "Granny")

Mr. CHESTNUTT: (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.

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 is 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

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: Well, 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 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 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’s(ph) my insurance for as long as it was legally possible. And then – and
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.”

(Soundbite of song, Chinaberry Tree”)

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Me with a machete, going at the chinaberry tree. All
the key players are watching me through their simian group-think.
(unintelligible). Chinaberry tree…

Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Correspondence Creatively Critiqued In “Yours Ever”


When was the last time you sat down and devoted some time to writing a letter
in long hand and on paper? Thanks to Email, Twitter and all the other
alternative forms of communication technology has given us, letter writing is
fast becoming a lost art. In his new study of letter writing, called “Yours
Ever,” novelist and critic Thomas Mallon takes a look at a type of writing that
may soon be rendered as quaint as the quill pen. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: At first glance, Thomas Mallon’s “Yours Ever” falls into the
no-brainer category of new books. It’s a study of the art of letter writing and
it’s chock full of luscious quotes from the likes marathon missive
manufacturers like Teddy Roosevelt, George Sand, Mark Twain, Lord Byron,
Flannery O’Connor and Winston Churchill. Mallon himself brought out two earlier
collections that are in the same vein as this one: “A Book of One’s Own,” which
was a study of diaries, and “Stolen Words,” about plagiarism.

You see what I mean about no-brainer. “Yours Ever” promised to be such an
affable literary entertainment that I almost passed it up. But what bumps this
book out of the realm of the ho-hum is Mallon’s own gift for unpredictable
criticism. He’s a canny reader of other writers’ styles and he confidently
makes the kind of blunt pronouncements on other writers’ personalities, as well
as their work, that have become out of fashion in the relentlessly
contextualized age of therapy and postmodern literary theory.

For example, in a chapter that focuses on letters of complaint, Mallon turns
his gaze on the British poet Philip Larkin, whose letters are filled with
xenophobia, self-disgust, and scatological imagery, which doesn’t mean that
they aren’t also sometimes very funny. Writing to a correspondent, Larkin
compared the art of publishing a book to farting at a party — you have to wait
till people stop looking at you before you can behave normally again.

Mallon shrewdly points out that what former admirers of Larkin’s who were
dismayed by the posthumous publication of his letters really can’t forgive
about him, more than his unattractive prejudices, is that he was pissed off
rather than righteously angry. That’s such a smart insight. We don’t mind our
poets raging, but a poet whining on year after year about his noisy neighbors
and bowel movements seems depressingly earth-bound. As an appreciation of
letters as a literary genre, “Yours Ever” is imbued with a sense of the form’s
eleventh-hour mortality.

Email has all but vanquished what Mallon refers to as the small hardships of
letter writing — having to think a moment longer, remaining in suspense while
awaiting reply, having one’s urgent letters cross in the mail. These are the
things that enrich the art of letter writing, emotionally and rhetorically.
Mallon tries not to be too sentimental. After all, writing letters can be a
pain. But it’s hard not to mourn the form when you’re put in the private
company of such masters as H. L. Mencken, Mary McCarthy and Noel Coward.

Describing a performance by the World War II era British singer Deanna Durban,
Coward said that she sang “There’ll Always Be an England” with tears rolling
down her face as though she were bitterly depressed at the thought. In
contrast, the letters Mallon quotes from Ayn Rand, in a chapter he calls
“Advice,” fascinate precisely because of their lack of elegance. Mallon
observes that the ugly, pile-driving clarity of Rand’s writing was suited to
the giving of advice, at least in those instances when the requester needed
someone else’s certainty to pulverize hesitation.

He then quotes from a letter that Rand wrote to her niece who asked for the
loan of $25 to buy a dress. Auntie Ayn stipulated a repayment plan and signed
off thusly: if you become ill, then I will give you an extension of time, but
for no other reason. If, when the debt comes due, you tell me that you can’t
pay then I will consider you as an embezzler. I will write you off as a rotten
person and I will never speak or write to you again.

“Yours Ever” is a revelatory collection of the nutty and the noble encased in
correspondence. One small complaint I have is that I wish Mallon had more
consistently identified the recipients of these gems. It helps to know whether
the letters were indeed private or public performances. Otherwise, delving into
this book offers readers the consolation that, even if Email does delete the
art of letter writing as we know it, there are still mountains of snail mail
from the past to be opened up and savored.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “Yours Ever: People And Their Letters” by Thomas Mallon.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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