Photo Credit: Katie Kim
Now in its third year, the Classic City Rotary’s Vic Chesnutt Songwriter of the Year Award has become a coveted prize among local songwriters. There could be few better namesakes for such an award than the late Chesnutt, a musician highly regarded for his wit, wisdom and lyrical acuity. This year’s five finalists, nominated by fans and peers for a song released in 2018, represent a wide swath of Athens music, their varying backgrounds and writing styles reflecting the richness of the overall scene.
What to Know: A guitarist and songwriter known for her work with local surf band Outersea, as well as for her striking solo material, Brambila is nominated for the sparse, haunting opener from her excellent 2018 album, Migraineur. As she explains, the song is based on an obscure Mexican folk tale she internalized as a child.
“My cousins told me the local legend of a two-tailed, two-legged Melusine who sang from the rock in the middle of a lake… She would lure men to drown in the water unless women restrained them,” Brambila says. “When I wrote this song a couple of years ago, I tried to both acknowledge and muddle the gender binaries of that story, to weave in elements of the drowned city of Ys story from A.S. Byatt's Possession, and to incorporate symbols from the Smith-Waite tarot deck.”
Brambila says, for her, songwriting is a fundamental tool not only creatively, but intellectually and politically, too. “Writing helps me work out the knots in my thinking about gender and labor,” adds Brambila, “and I'm really honored to have this song recognized as part of this awards ceremony.”
Song: “The Last Thursday”
Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher
What to Know: Chambers, a longtime Athens-music fixture who has followed his muse over the years from gritty folk to driving rock to ambient moodscapes and back again, reached another creative apex with last year’s smoky, noirish Love of Oblivion.
The tune “was written as a theme song for a monthly variety show of the same name [that] I hosted,” says Chambers. “It’s not a very good theme song. It wanted to be a love song. The lyrics generated themselves while I watched a science-fiction silent film… that had Neanderthals and flying machines. I mixed in some autobiographical images and was thinking of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ when the melody developed—though it’s far from that.”
Chambers reflects on having his work associated with the famously attention-averse Chesnutt. “Up in the heavens among the pantheon of gods, Vic Chesnutt is keeping Leonard Cohen, Hoagy Carmichael and Woody Guthrie in black-humored stitches,” he says. “I am honored and a little red-faced to be nominated for an award with Vic’s name on it. I hope he gets a good laugh out of it.”
Song: “Just Listen”
What to Know: Performing under the name The Little Strong, local multi-instrumentalist Carly Joy King cites influences such as Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson and Chance the Rapper, and her music is at once warm and challenging, contemporary and bold. Her Run With the Lions EP was an unjustly overlooked 2018 gem.
“I wrote this song in a fury of words and emotions after spending a holiday with family,” King says. “I was inspired to write a song where I could say as much as possible in a short amount of time. I sat down at a Wurlitzer organ I had at the time and was piddling around, playing simple chords, and cranked out a chorus. In my restlessness, I took my journal to a coffee shop and spent the next hour spewing out all of my thoughts, trying to acknowledge pains, but also seeking forgiveness.”
All melodious uplift and radical kindness, “Just Listen” is a feat of songwriting. “This song has become a powerful landmark to me of stating that I have a voice, that we all have a voice, and that we all deserve to be heard without judgment, but with love and openness,” says King.
Photo Credit: Evan Reece
What to Know: An Athens guitarist who often builds layers of acoustic loops in the process of constructing his emotionally charged, spiritually searching alternative folk, Meredith’s work is both doggedly bombastic and unapologetically bare.
A tale of struggle and redemption, “Mirrors” began “as a call to arms to myself,” says Meredith. “I felt overwhelmed by apathy, and could see nothing more than the darkness around me. I knew I would have to push hard if I wanted to find something different. So, broken down, in front of a mirror, I let out a rally cry for the pursuit of hope, and it transformed into what ‘Mirrors’ is today.”
Meredith says the Chesnutt Award nod serves as validation for his time spent chasing his creative dreams. “Being nominated as a finalist for the [award] is such a blessing. The nomination serves as an affirmation that the sweat and tears I’ve put into following my dreams haven’t fallen on barren grounds.”
What to Know: The frontman for beloved local indie-rock band The Glands died in 2016, but his legacy was bolstered by a batch of 2018 releases from New West Records, including reissues of The Glands’ initial two LPs and a first pressing of a third, Double Coda, a collection of various rarities and unreleased gems. Among the many standouts on Double Coda was “Possibilities,” a quiet but striking track that ranks among Shapiro’s most disarmingly tender compositions.
“I really don’t have much knowledge about the writing of ‘Possibilities,’ and therefore not much insight,” says Glands member Joe Rowe, who will perform the song at Thursday’s show with bandmate Doug Stanley. “It was just another brilliant song that Ross threw on the get-back-to-it-again-sometime-later pile of songs, but probably never really did.”
Rowe notes that Shapiro and Chesnutt were kindred spirits when it came to both music and fame. “Ross probably would have called this award ‘The Vicys,’ as he liked to call the Flagpole Music Awards ‘The Flaggys,’” says Rowe, recalling his bandmate’s sense of humor and distaste for industry insider-ism. Still, he adds, “We are honored and humbled to be in such good company all around with this award.”
One of five finalists will receive a $1,000 Vic Chesnutt Songwriter of the Year Award. This year's finalists are Lydia Brambila, Don Chambers, Carly Joy King, Greg Meredith and Ross Shapiro.