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The Levity of the Situation

For the uninitiated Choke must have left a strange first impression. With Chesnutt's Southern eclecticism on full display throughout the record, critics and fellow artists raved, but the masses stayed away. For his part Chesnutt quips that the album sold "the least amount of records in Capitol history." But even so, Chesnutt maintains, "I was happy with the way a lot of it turned out. I think mainly because it encompassed all of my other records. I didn't try and do that, but I think that's the way it came out. It's actually kind of funny in that respect."

It was during the tour supporting Choke that Chesnutt, spurred on by the pain of his illness and rapidly deteriorating spirits, pulled his disappearing act, leaving his wife Tina and his Nashville-based touring group Lambchop stranded in the Midwest. If his actions left those around him in a state of panic, it was nothing compared to the intense soul-searching that Chesnutt was experiencing on the Florida shores. Possibly realizing that his demons were more imagined than real, or perhaps thinking he was on the cusp of some sort of artistic breakthrough, Chesnutt came to his senses and decided to head back home to Athens instead of rolling into the murky waters of the Atlantic. It was then that he began writing and assembling songs for his latest and most ambitious release, The Salesman and Bernadette.

Despite the record cover's childlike images, The Salesman and Bernadette is no musical line drawing: It's pop art of the highest order. Creating the character of the Salesman, Chesnutt navigates his self-effacing protagonist through a small and sometimes sad world of lonely hotel rooms, dirty magazines, and empty streets, all the while chasing his elusive lover Bernadette (who makes a brief appearance in the form of a vocal cameo by Emmylou Harris).

There are hints that the sloppy and befuddled Salesman is based on Chesnutt himself. As a songwriter Chesnutt has always been brave enough to reveal himself; by assuming the persona of the Salesman, he's able to focus with surgical precision on the details that have made his songs so engrossing. Whether he's describing an "Eisenhower ashtray" in "Woodrow Wilson" or "the Stone Age fax machine" of "Mysterious Tunnel," Chesnutt's sharp eye only strengthens his examination of the larger issues at hand: loss and longing.

Although The Salesman and Bernadette is a concept album only in the most basic sense, Chesnutt admits that the idea scared him enough that it forced him to reconsider his plan to include a detailed set of liner notes. "I had pages and pages of notes explaining the story, but then at the end I shied away from that," he says. "I started finding that people had totally different impressions of what it was about. Like with Kurt [Wagner, of Lambchop]; he would tell me what he was thinking and it was totally different than what I had intended. But then I thought, Wow, that's great, too.

"It's always been difficult for me to decide what songs to record on an album because I've got a lot that over the years have just stacked up," Chesnutt adds. "And a lot of them I've always wanted to record, but it's just hard to choose. But I knew for this record I wanted to record 'Duty Free' and I knew I wanted to record 'Bernadette.' For some reason those two songs I was sure of. And then when I saw them side by side, I thought, They must have a relationship; how can I elaborate on that relationship? So I started choosing songs from my past that did that."

From the opening horns of "Duty Free" to the pedal steel of "Old Hotel," it's clear that Chesnutt is no longer the lonely troubadour playing quirky songs in a darkened room. With Salesman, he has recast himself as a great American pop storyteller: a postpunk hybrid of Tom Waits and Van Dyke Parks with a healthy dose of Southern consciousness thrown into the mix. The early reaction to the record has focused on its lyrical quality and narrative structure, drawing favorable comparisons to early twentieth-century literary works such as Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Although he's certainly not averse to those comparisons, Chesnutt views the project as having a more cinematic rooting.

"To me this record is more like a French movie, more so than, say, a novel," he explains. "At least that's the way I saw it. I expect it to hit you like a French movie. It has certain imagery that kind of reminds me of that."

Maybe the biggest surprise about The Salesman and Bernadette is that it triumphs on a musical level as well. The backing by friends and frequent road companions Lambchop (a virtual alt-country "big band") infuses Chesnutt's songs with varied arrangements and musical punctuation. Lambchop's versatility allows Chesnutt to play with a number of unique and heretofore unexplored musical styles, from Stax/Volt soul to Preservation Hall jazz to gentle country rhythms. For Chesnutt the departure from his usually understated musical approach is especially liberating.

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