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Immortal Blues - In Memoriam: Chris Whitley


by James Calemine

There’s a dirt floor
Underneath here
To receive us
When changes fail

May this shovel
Loose your trouble
Lay them
Far Away

“Dirt Floor”

At 45, Chris Whitley died of lung cancer on November 20, 2005 in Houston, Texas. Whitley learned of his fatal illness only five weeks before his death. Few contemporary songwriters possessed the rare talent of performing alone onstage with an ability to inspire an audience like Chris Whitley.

Born in Houston on August 31, 1960, Whitley moved around a lot as a youth. When he heard Johnny Winter’s “Dallas”, Whitley became a devout bottleneck slide player. Often armed with his National Steel guitar, Whitley commanded respect from even the most hardboiled guitarist. Quitting school at 17, he played on the streets of New York for years until he moved to Belgium, married, and became a father.

In 1990, Whitley met Daniel Lanois who recorded with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and U2. Lanois scored Whitley a deal with Columbia Records. Lanois’ protégé, Malcolm Burn, produced Whitley’s classic debut released in 1991, Living With the Law. Recorded in Lanois’ New Orleans mansion, Living With the Law contains Whitley classics such as “Big Sky Country”, “Poison Girl”, “Dust Radio”, and “Phone Call From Leavenworth”.

The Thelma & Louise soundtrack included Whitley’s song “Kick the Stones”, allowing him to gain national exposure. Living With the Law reached #36 on the Heatseekers chart. Later in the year he opened for Tom Petty. Soon Whitley became known as a modern day, cutthroat bluesman.

Four turbulent years later, Whitley released his sophomore CD, Din of Ecstasy. This collection aimed for a darker, electric, more spontaneous sound featuring gritty songs like “Guns & Dolls”, “Narcotic Prayer”, and “New Machine”.

In 1997, Whitley released Terra Incognita, a CD recorded at the Teatro Theater in Oxnard, California where Daniel Lanois recorded Willie Nelson’s landmark Teatro album. Incognita followed in the musical footsteps of Din’s electric sludge, but distinguished a sharper focus. For the Terra Incognita tour, Whitley employed a band. Rare live gigs with a group allowed Whitley to loosen up a bit musically which made for unforgettable performances. However, he never stopped performing solo shows.

Whitley’s under-rated songwriting skills remained the backbone of his talent. His lyrics covered a wide scope of emotion from “psychosexual” to Zen lullabies which proved a serious combination augmented by his guitar prowess. His soulful lyrics fit each riff, like “Three o’clock this morning/I thought I saw Jesus coming down/He came through the concrete baby/He came through the wall without no sound/Now I mean concrete walls that ain’t no clay/I closed my eyes and watched him slip away.”

In 1998 Whitley released his solo masterpiece, Dirt Floor. Recorded during one day in a rural Vermont cabin, Whitley played banjo, guitar, and his trademark foot-stomp on these quiet songs that represent some of his strongest material.

Whitley’s first live CD, recorded two nights in Chicago, Live At Martyrs, reiterated his sound never strayed from earthy folk, country-blues, and mercurial rock. On this disc, “Home Is Where You Get Across” epitomizes Whitley’s talent. The same year, 2000, Whitley recorded a CD of cover songs titled Perfect Day. Billy Martin and Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, accompanied Whitley on these sparse tunes. The way Whitley renders Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident”, Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”, and Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” the compositions almost sound like his own.

Buy Chris Whitley's Dirt Floor at AMAZON.COM

In 2001, Whitley recorded his next studio effort on ATO Records titled Rocket House. He experimented with hip-hop ingredients on this release which procured strong tunes like “To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)” and the proverbial “Say Goodbye”. Whitley operated on some subterranean level during this point in his career, uninterested in following atypical steps in the music business.

Hotel Vast Horizon, Whitley’s seventh studio release employed a European sonic atmosphere. Whitley began living in Dresden Germany during this period. Each CD sounded different. He never attempted to duplicate his previous work for commercial appeal.

Whitley’s 2004 War Crime Blues found him alone with his guitar. This collection proved, once again, Whitley’s vocal talent and incandescent bottleneck sound. These songs carry a political overtone, unlike most of Whitley’s work.

The same year, Weed, an acoustic collection of his old tunes like “Bordertown”, “I Forget You Every Day”, and “Weightless”, hit the streets. This era of Whitley’s career exposed his deep roots in American blues.

In early 2005 Whitley’s eleventh CD, Soft Dangerous Shores, was released. Old friend Malcolm Burn produced this edgy collection of dark, electric songs that evoke a spooky musical landscape. Whitley experienced some problems touring this past summer, which in hindsight now seem apparent from terminal health reasons. Nonetheless, Whitley wrote and recorded another album in 2005 he called Reiter In for release in 2006, which will prove an essential chapter in the prolific catalogue of his work.

In October of 2005, Whitley cancelled tour dates without an explanation. A month later he died. Chris Whitley leaves behind a daughter, brother, fiancé, ex-wife, and father.

Great artists take a little piece of you with them when they die. Often through the years I’d play some Chris Whitley on a mean, depressing night looking forward to the next opportunity to see him live. I remember when he toured with a band behind the Terra Incognita CD. Before the Atlanta show they ate outside at an Italian restaurant called Pasta de Pulcinella’s. Chris sat at the table wearing his finger picks hours before the show—ready to play. Seeing him live always proved amazing.

Now I play his music and it’s hard to believe he’s gone. Even for those who never knew him, Chris Whitley’s death feels like the loss of an old friend....

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