Chris Whitley: The Great Modern Bluesman

I have been to Mississippi. I have seen Clarksdale and the crossroads late at night. I have heard the sounds of Muddy Waters cabin, the wail of Robert Johnson’s slide, and the foot stomp of Lead Belly. The sounds of Clapton, Page, Mayal, Duane Allman, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray echo through my brain from time to time. But none of the great blues players of the 20th Century have touched my soul like Chris Whitley.

I first heard Chris Whitley in 1991. His debut record in America, Living with the Law, received rave reviews even from Rolling Stone Magazine.

Living with the Law,’ Chris Whitley’s extraordinary debut album, is fantasy blues – bona fide poetry and National steel guitar conjuring dream imagery from some surreal western movie. Riveting and original, Whitley mines roots music not as an imitator but as a visionary who trades on archetypal symbols and classic riffs to fashion his own twilight American mythology

For most of America, this would be the first and last time they would hear from Chris Whitley. His followup would not arrive for another four years. If Chris Whitley was anything, he was his own man. Most artists would have followed up their debut within a matter of two years. Din of Ecstasy was released and many fans did not know what to make of the record. Din was filled with loud guitars, rock drums, rock songs. Gone were the atmospheric songs of Living with the Law. Rather than judge it for what it was, many people judged it for what it wasn’t – Living with the Law II. However, the album would only be the first U-Turn in a career of U-Turns for Chris Whitley. Looking back, the record is as an intense rock record as one will find.

For the next ten years, Chris Whitley would take his music and chameleon style to new heights. Never was one record like the one before. Born in the blues, bathed in Hendrix, each record was a cacophony of influences mixing together with modern sounds and lyrics crafted from a poet’s composition book. 1997’s Terra Incognito saw Chris engaging his electric and eclectic voyage. The result was a collection of songs, quieter than Din, but still not quite what the record company envisioned. As a result, Chris was free to go his own way.

Much like Neil Young and David Bowie experimented with different sounds and styles throughout the 1970s, so too did Chris. 1998 saw Chris on the independent Messenger Records. The results over the next 7 years saw a flurry of genius as Chris, now comfortable in his own skin, made a collection of records worthy of the greats. Chris states:

“What I came to terms with by making some small indie records and meeting other people who work in that way is that, hey, if a record doesn’t do blockbuster numbers, then that’s OK,” Whitley told Billboard in 2001. “I feel more comfortable with my place in the culture now and the fact that I don’t have to fear the cool police or this cult of youth.”2

First came Dirt Floor. A magnificent collection of songs set to Whitley’s foot, his Dobro or banjo. A favorite of Bruce Springsteen, the record enamored many of Whitley’s original fans but more importantly, gave him life to do whatever he pleased. The record also showcased his voice as well. Weathered and worn, the instrument of a blues man opened up to bring tales of a life of survival, suffering, sensitivity, and sensuality to fruition.

Over the next three years, Whitley continued to dabble in different sounds. Perfect Day, a collection of covers with Chris Wood and Billy Martin of Mediski, Martin, and Wood saw Chris reinventing songs from Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Doors, and Howlin’ Wolf. I remembered my wife and I had to play “Perfect Day” at our wedding along with “Spanish Harlem Incident”, and “4th Time Around”.

2001 saw Chris experimenting with DJ Logic on Rocket House for Dave Matthew’s ATO Records. Matthews was one of Chris’s biggest supporters – He states: “I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris Whitley makes.” The atmospherics of hip-hop mixed with the blues created a backdrop for not only Whitley’s voice but also his lyrics.

In 2003, Chris released Hotel Vast Horizon. Critically acclaimed, the record featured more of the atmospherics featured on Rocket House combined with jazz elements in an acoustic setting, the Dresden recording crafted some of the best work of his career. Chris stated: “The instrumentation is pretty acoustic, though it’s a little close to Rocket House,” Whitley said. “A lot of the songs sound very quiet. I feel like some people are attracted to the atmospheric sense of my music, no matter how the whole record sounds.”

As Chris continued to find his way through his soul, 2004 saw the release of an acoustic collection of his early work recorded in his bathroom with a mini-disc. Weed strips away the atmospherics of the records and reveals the true blues man and poet that Chris was.
2004 also saw the release of Chris passionate War Crime Blues. A mixture of outrage, passion, and hard-core anger, the album further encased his voice with the passionate a capella version of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”. Along with the Clash’s The Call Up, Chris’s voice was now filled with a lifetime of experiences and depth one does not find on any mainstream recording.

2005 saw the release of Chris’s Soft Dangerous Shores. The album reunited him with Producer Malcom Burn from Living with the Law. The record plays as a sensual and passionate love letter. Little did many of his fans know he would pass within the year. On November 20, 2005, Chris passed away after a battle with lung cancer. Two posthumous records were released. Reiter In is a return to the days of Din of Ecstasy and loud guitars. Upon its release shortly after Chris’s death, it was very hard for me to listen to as you hear him gasping for breath. The subsequent duet album with Australian Jeff Lang, Dislocation Blues, felt much the same way.

But as time has passed, one gets a better perspective on not ony his final records, but Chris’s work as a whole. One sees the passionate and sensual poetry of “Hotel Vast Horizon” and “New Lost World”. One hears the anguish of love betrayed of “Bordertown”. One can feel the pain set forth in “Ball peen Hammer”. One could go on and on about his voice, his songs, and his music. However one cannot escape the totality of the legacy he left behind. In the post grunge era, there are few artists who have left behind a musical legacy as rich and as varied as Chris Whitley. From blues to rock to Americana, his collection of albums stand in stark contrast to the music created in the time period. Whilst teeny bop pop perforated the airwaves, it is the music of Chris that will echo through time. From Living with the Law to Din of Ecstasy to Dirt Floor to Perfect Day, Rocket House, Hotel Vast Horizon, Weed, War Crime Blues, and Soft Dangerous Shores, there is no one else who has made a significant amount of records, or contributed as much to the musical landscape of American music.

As with many greats of jazz and blues, the music of Chris Whitley will live on for his devoted followers.
Made From Dirt
When I die and turn the weed
Don’t let no man come clone my seed
Just lay me out in my birthday shirt
And I will prove I was made from dirt
I was made from dirt

Here is Chris at his finest

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6 comments

  1. I hope that your prediction “Whilst teeny bop pop perforated the airwaves, it is the music of Chris that will echo through time. ” comes true. A forthcoming documentary about Chris’s life – “Dust Radio” ( http://www.dustradiomovie.com/cw_trailer_640x480/chris-whitley-trailer.html) – may help to garner the recognition he deserves. Such an exceptional talent, yet I’ve never met anyone who even knows who he is or has heard his music. Thanks for your laudatory retrospective.

  2. the movie documentary on him I believe will come out next year in February…can’t wait because information on Chris are rare to find, which is so bewildering to me. You for example also just included one source and that was the Rolling Stone Magazine…gosh, how was he able to fly under the music radar like this?

  3. I’am looking forward to his documentary. I just found out that when he died he was pretty much homeless and broke. I was heartbroken to hear this. I saw him in concert and have been a fan for over 10 years. I’am greatly saddened he never got the recognition he deserved.

  4. Chris was, still is and always will be one of my all time-favorite artist.
    A true poet, a great musician… an icon.

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