Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

You can take the word “Fiction” printed on the cover of Vic Chesnutt’s latest and best release, The Salesman and Bernadette, with a grain of salt. The suicidal drunk “chasing rum with rum” in “Square Room” might not technically be Vic, but the character and author share a propensity for existential benders; legend has it that after the final gig of the tour for his last (and only) major-label release, About to Choke, Chesnutt abandoned his band in Wisconsin and took the tour van on a soul-searching quest, ending up in a Florida hotel room that one could assume was square and filled with an empty bottle or two. But for a modest Southerner who writes more like a storyteller than a songwriter, the fiction designation has some utility, particularly in providing the necessary emotional distance for Chesnutt to be more personal than ever. The end result is a song cycle that oscillates between jaunty and heart-wrenching at the drop of a phrase. Chesnutt hands out parts like a playwright (in the slow waltz “Woodrow Wilson,” for example, Emmylou Harris plays Bernadette to Chesnutt’s salesmen), and the country-soul big band Lambchop serves as the singer’s sharp-witted chorus, conjuring a literary, eclectically Southern brand of swing in the process. “Arthur Murray” is a stinging barroom shuffle (“you laugh when I tell you you’re gorgeous”); the rueful Nashville downstroke “Duty Free” could sit proudly alongside any of George Jones’ closing-time anthems. More than 10 years into a career built on a potential he plays down, Chesnutt has finally found it in himself to be ambitious.—Brett Anderson