…there’s an albatross that follows Chesnutt from the door of his home to every show he plays. Though he’s currently insured, an accumulating stream of nearly $70,000 worth of unpaid hospital bills is threatening to swallow much of his livelihood as a songwriter. It’s left him in an unprecedented condition— one where he’s at a loss for words.
“I’m not too eloquent talking about these things,” Chesnutt said. “I was making payments, but I can’t anymore and I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford. I could die any day now, but I don’t want to pay them another nickel.”
Those feelings are deeply ingrained in “At the Cut,” where almost every song offers at least a sideways glance at creeping mortality. Take, for instance, “Flirted With You All My Life,” an incandescent country tune that’s a kind of a breakup letter to Chesnutt’s own thoughts of ending his life. “I’ve been a suicidal person all my life, and that song is me finally being ‘Screw you, death,’ ” Chesnutt said.
Chesnutt’s very real ensnarement in the insurance system lends an uncomfortable yet deeply compelling undertone to his lyrical attempts to make peace with illness, his paraplegism and death. Chesnutt doesn’t hold out too much hope for whatever healthcare bill makes it through the Senate, either—“What will pass will be weak, the powers that be will be happy and the insurance companies will be thrilled,” he believes.
…Chesnutt had recently struggled with a lawsuit filed by a Georgia hospital after he racked up surgery bills totaling some $70,000, the Athens newspaper reported. He said he couldn’t afford more than hospitalization insurance and couldn’t keep up with the payments.
The problems baffled his Canadian bandmates, Chesnutt said.
“There’s nowhere else in the world that I’d be facing the situation I’m in right now. They cannot understand what kind of society would inflict that on their population,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”
Back in 1996, a Chesnutt Tribute album called “Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation,” helped raise money for his medical bills — and was intended to perhaps goose him out of obscurity so he could make a better living. At the time, he was quoted in a Strib story by Jon Bream about medical insurance for musicians.
“A lot of musicians are living supper to supper” and can’t pay for insurance. “It’s really scary,” said Chesnutt, pop’s most prominent paraplegic singer-songwriter. “I was lucky enough: I had a job when I crashed. I was working at Hardee’s and at a cotton mill, too. So I’d paid in Social Security for a couple of years and I automatically got Medicaid, which is a great thing. If not, my family would’ve been starved to death. It would’ve sucked them dry.”
Even thirteen years later, a difficult and obscure artists can’t go back to the well for another tribute album. So the greatest outpouring comes too late.