The definition of a nonconformist is “a person whose behavior or views do not conform to prevailing ideas or practices.” Yup, that defines the late blues-rock-folk artist Chris Whitley quite well.
The first time I saw Whitley perform live was in 1992 at Wetlands Preserve, a now-defunct New York City music club. Like many clubs of that era, Wetlands hosted a broad range of up and comers, including popular jam bands such as Phish, Government Mule and the Dave Matthews Band. The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler played there so often they were practically resident artists.
While Wetlands wasn’t as raw as the more well-known NYC club CBGB, it did have its own gritty charm, ultimately closing in 2001 to make room for new condominiums, all part of a gentrifying TriBeCa neighborhood.
Looking wisp-thin and a tad unkempt that evening, Whitley projected an image of a Delta bluesman with NYC cred, a fairly apt description as his resume includes busking on the streets of Manhattan. In the early 80s, he was a fairly well-known street performer in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. So, the Wetland’s gig was sort of a large-stage homecoming.
I don’t recall precisely when I first heard Whitley’s Columbia Records debut LP Living With The Law (1991), but it left an immediate impression, and remains a favorite of mine from that era. With a soulful, brooding voice, and a penetrating slide guitar, Whitley’s blues-tinged music projects a contemporary Robert Johnson or Elmore James. His unique style of playing and sound is driven by a vintage National Triolian steel-bodied resonator guitar, only manufactured from 1928 to 1941, and Whitley’s primary instrument of choice.
When reflecting on his musical influences, Whitley had this to say: “I grew up on (blues great) Johnny Winter, and that’s why I got into the National (guitar). But I was more into the rural electric blues, like Howlin’ Wolf, [his song] Smokestack Lightnin’ and the one-chord sound of early John Lee Hooker. And Elmore James; it wasn’t about his guitar though; I loved his singing.”
Two songs from Living With The Law charted on Billboard: The title track, “Living With The Law” at #28 and “Big Sky Country” at #36. Both songs are excellent, as is “Dust Radio,” all enhanced by the entire album’s exquisite production values. (Whitley thought the album was too polished, and there lies the beginning of a career conundrum.) Rolling Stone named Living With The Law the best debut album of 1991.
Seemingly like every great guitarist, Whitley was known for an extensive guitar collection, and for making guitar slides out of old bicycle handlebars. Skilled with a hacksaw, he’d cut the handlebar into pieces. The folks at Schwinn likely didn’t approve, but it certainly demonstrated a bit of ingenuity on his part.
Born in Houston, Texas, Chris Whitley began playing guitar at 15. His father was an advertising art director and his mother a sculptor, so there was creativity in the gene pool. The family moved around a fair amount, and as an adult, Whitley had a similar nomadic lifestyle. While he was living and busking in New York City, he met a visiting Belgian travel agent in 1980 named Dirk Vandewiele. An amateur musician himself, Vandewiele was completely blown away by Whitley’s playing, and he stayed in touch after returning to Belgium.
On the travel agent’s next visit to New York in 1981, he did something pretty awesome. He bought Whitley a plane ticket to Belgium, with the hopes of helping him develop his musical career abroad. Always open for an adventure, Whitley lived with Vandewiele and his family in Ghent, Belgium, while the travel agent helped him secure gigs at local clubs and festivals.
Whitley stayed and played in Belgium for six years developing his craft, including an experimental period with synth-pop. He also got married and had a baby daughter, Trixie. Although Belgian music promoters didn’t exactly spark to his sound, the experience gave Whitley confidence and helped him grow as an artist.
A few years later, he returned to NYC as a far more seasoned performer. One evening in 1988 while he was playing a small club, musician and producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) caught his set. Lanois then took Whitley under his wing and helped him secure his first label deal with Columbia Records.
There’s no doubt Chris Whitley would have had far greater commercial success if his musical pursuits stayed within a narrower range. Columbia Records executives were baffled by the creative direction he took with his second LP, Din of Ecstasy, a stark contrast and experimental departure from his award-winning debut. Din is an album full of distortion and dissonance, and it demonstrated Whitley’s unwillingness to compromise and align with other peoples’ expectations. After a third and again less-mainstream album, Terra Incognita, Columbia dropped Whitley from the label.
Many artists enthusiastically espouse a love for their craft. Some remain true to their vision; others bend to the needs of others and the pull of commercialism. Chris Whitley just wasn’t willing to play by any rules but his own. Music critics frequently write about an artist’s growth, but perhaps the most meaningful definition of growth is self-defined by the artist.
Though grateful for his early success, Whitley said this in 2000: “Hopefully as an artist you’re always growing, they’re [albums] just phases, a progression you’re going through, and hopefully you’re evolving. It may be more commercial [to continue on a successful path], but evolving creatively is more fulfilling for me. I hope I never sound like I always sounded.”
Whitley continued to receive critical acclaim, but not much commercial success. In 1998 he released the album Dirt Floor on the indie Messenger Records label. It’s a solo, two-track analog LP recorded in his father’s barn in Vermont. Dirt Floor is a raw, stripped-down recording that other artists might have treated as a demo. It’s an example of some of Whitley’s finest writing, though the lack of any production values hindered the album’s commercial appeal.
A few years later, “Breaking Your Fall” from the album Hotel Vast Horizon (2003) won the Independent Music Award for Best Folk/Singer Songwriter Song. The following year Whitley won a similar award for the blues/R&B composition “Her Furious Angels” from the LP War Crime Blues (2004).
War Crime Blues was recorded in Dresden, Germany, yet another stop in Whitley’s world-life travels. “I started War Crime Blues about a year after 9/11,” said Whitley. “I actually flew into New York City on September 13th that year. I saw a negative [state of] grace develop out of the attacks that’s mostly related to fear and ignorance because we had no previous reference point to someone hating us that physically. The record came out of me wanting to respond honestly to the situation, rather than having a big message.” It’s an illustration of Whitley’s moment-in-time approach to making music, in this case inspired by an historical event, rather than a predetermined flight plan.
Chris Whitley is probably known and admired more among fellow musicians than the mainstream public. Over the course of recording 14 albums, he garnered a “who’s who” list of admirers, including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, John Mayer, Tom Petty and Joe Bonamassa. Dave Matthews had this to say: “I feel more passion for Whitley’s music than I do my own.”
When you listen to interviews with Whitley he sounds both cerebral and introspective, often projecting an image of someone striving for inner peace. Like far too many artists, he drowned his sorrows in the bottle to mask whatever pain and demons he was facing. It’s fair to say he didn’t seek or need mainstream success. In fact, you could say it conflicted him, and ultimately he rejected it. The music biz distracted Whitley from what he enjoyed most, a love of craft and making music.
Many artists often are content with self-fulfillment versus chasing critical acclaim and/or economic success. For them, any suggestion of compromising their vision and integrity for commercial appeal is a non-starter. For others, there’s a recognition of co-dependency, and that their success is conditional on being aligned with both the business needs of others and popular music trends. In an ideal world, a musician’s talent inherently meshes with all constituents without a need for too much compromise.
Kudos to those unwilling to sacrifice their vision or creative standards, though there are inherent risks when rejecting commercialism, as the arts are hardly known for providing financial stability. At the end of the day, a musician still has to make a living. Of course, fate could reward a musician with a lucky Lotto ticket, or perhaps they discover a trust fund is in their future. Farfetched? Nope; many artists are dreamers, and a fantasizing mindset frequently inspires creativity.
There’s a bit of irony, however, with Whitley’s posthumously-released last studio LP, Dislocation Blues. The album is a collaboration with Australian guitarist and longtime friend, Jeff Lang. The album includes two Dylan covers, including a great version of “Changing of the Guard.” The album is primarily acoustic blues, and delivers the kind of sound you might have expected from Whitley as a follow-up to his debut LP Living With The Law. It’s as if Whitley’s recordings had come full circle, but of course only to be done on his timetable and terms.
Chris Whitley sadly died of lung cancer at the age of 45 in 2005.
Chris Whitley’s daughter Trixie and brother Dan are also musicians. I caught Trixie performing songs from her debut LP Fourth Corner in 2013 at NYC’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, another club in Greenwich Village. Trixie possesses the same deep passion and soulfulness of her father, with an amazing voice. Her performance was stunning.
Check out Trixie’s songs “Breathe You in My Dreams,” or the Daniel Lanois/Brian Blade collaboration on the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind.” In Belgium, Fourth Corner went gold the first week after release and earned Trixie a Music Industry Award (MIA) for Best Female Solo Artist. Her second album, Porta Bohemica, won an award for best writer/arranger at the 2016 MIA awards. A third solo album, Lacuna, was released in 2019.
Chris’s musical influence on younger brother Dan, also can’t be overstated. To date Dan has released two solo CDs in collaboration with producer Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Midnight Oil, Chris Whitley).
Chris Whitley’s legacy lives on both via his and his extended family’s music.
Header image of Chris Whitley courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Cunningham.