Vic Chestnutt’s West Of Rome spent a whole summer on rotation for me. If you’ve ever traveled into the interior of California alone, maneuvering beat-up farm roads with its insistent heat, listening to “Big Huge Valley” you may think Vic was your co-pilot.
Vic Chesnutt is a singer/songwriter who can divide a room, and that might be one of the highest compliments one can pay. Listeners can be turned off by his personal style that values storytelling — though not necessarily straightforward narrative — over smooth and even-metered rhymes. But his legion of fans — including many singer/songwriters — embrace these very distinguishing characteristics. He is surely an original, taking up traditional music streams folk, country, rock & roll, and producing his own idiosyncratic song style. It is tempting to place Chesnutt in the Southern gothic literary tradition. There is a certain Southern flavor in his songwriting — Southern in the sense that the lyrics are peopled with misfit outsiders who forge their own way, all described through Chesnutt’s own cracked lens. Chesnutt’s craggy voice, classical guitar, and outrageous imagination are his tools, and his performances were faithfully preserved by Scott Stuckey’s resonant living room production. After a few spins, listening to Chesnutt and company sound like they’re playing in your living room, the record begins to sound familiar; it’s nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices start to feel homey and comfortable, like an old house or an old friend. There’s a humble magic that West of Rome perpetuates that is ultimately the most enchanting thing about it — it offers a gentle reminder of things that are far too often taken for granted to those who care to listen.
Big Huge Valley.
well the big huge valley is a ribbon of light
the aqueducts are snakes tonight
the stars are homesteaders, staking claims
my head is hopping with historical names
transfer trucks are buffalos
chewing up this desert road
yes and i am nothing especially
just an uptight man on a useless journey
and the oil is pumping up out of the dirt
those virile dinosaurs continue to squirt
and the mountains lay like croaker sacks
the global forces sculpt with tectonic panache
and the crop duster flies through those blackish skies
she ain’t on the clock
she’s banking in and pulling out
her propeller eyes on the wind sock
well the big huge valley is on a respirator
life juices pumped from up in the sierras
the almond trees battle their own disease
the hay is jaundiced and the raisins wheeze
cattle march uner the knife
i do believe the big doctor is sweating up a storm tonight
Words from Kirsten Hersh
What this man was capable of was superhuman. Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored. He developed a guitar style that allowed him to play bass, rhythm and lead in the same song — this with the movement of only two fingers. His fluid timing was inimitable, his poetry untainted by influences. He was my best friend.
I never saw the wheelchair—it was invisible to me—but he did. When our dressing room was up a flight of stairs, he’d casually tell me that he’d meet me in the bar. When we both contracted the same illness, I told him it was the worst pain I’d ever felt. “I don’t feel pain,” he said. Of course. I’d forgotten. When I asked him to take a walk down the rain spattered sidewalk with me, he said his hands would get wet. Sitting on stage with him, I would request a song and he’d flip me off, which meant, “This finger won’t work today.” I saw him as unassailable—huge and wonderful, but I think Vic saw Vic as small, broken. And sad.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to listen to his music again, but I know how vital it is that others hear it. When I got the phone call I’d been dreading for the last fifteen years, I lost my balance. My whole being shifted to the left; I couldn’t stand up without careening into the wall and I was freezing cold. I don’t think I like this planet without Vic; I swore I would never live here without him. But what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better.
And if I’m honest with myself, I admit that I still feel like he’s here, but free of his constraints. Maybe now he really is huge. Unbroken. And happy.