On the tenth anniversary of Chris Whitley’s death I wanted to write something about the man who after many years still remains my favourite artist and who still remains criminally unknown to most people.
His first album was “Living with the Law” released on Columbia records in 1991 on the the back of a contract that famed producer Daniel Lanois helped him obtain after seeing him play in a New York club.
The album features musicians associated with Lanois and remains the most polished work in Whitley’s canon.
What’s remarkable is that this in no way sounds like a first album. The intensity and lyrical scope that would mark all his work are already there.
The songs resonate with vivid images of love, anguish and the hard roads that life can lead us down, all presented against a cinematic background of the American landscape that is portrayed as empty and desolate as the hearts of the songs protagonists.
Like all his work it was praised by the critics and his peers and if he had followed it up with “Living with the law 2” he might have gained enough exposure to achieve lasting fame but instead after a gap of three years he released “Din of Ecstasy” a loud, jagged, mostly electric album that despite moments of ethereal beauty is to most people a much more difficult listen than the smoothly produced “Living with the Law”
But this was the sound off an artist who was not afraid to follow his muse and to express that in any way that he saw fit.It would be the template that Whitley would follow throughout his career whether he choose to record a raw acoustic solo record like “Dirt Floor” or with a modern electronica group sound such as “Rocket House”. The Music would always be presented true to his vision.
It made him a brilliant performer to follow as a fan but difficult to market on a wider stage and like all of his fans I would be saddened that this most brilliant of musicians did not reap the rewards of stardom.
But as purely a musician he succeeded on every level. If being a musician means being able to connect to your listeners in a profound way and to draw them into your world then he could do it. With his intimate breathy voice and ever inventive guitar playing he was the spiritual descendent of the storyteller travelling from village to village telling tales whilst people sat listening raptly around a fire.
He had that quality that the best poets have of the ability to create a world more formed than your own and to weave a mood into place.
His death robbed us of one the true greats of modern day music. An artist whom I’m sure would have carried on producing interesting and worthwhile work but hopefully like Nick Drake or Richard Yates in literature his work will undergo a rediscovery by later generations and his genius finally lauded and understood.
As you can tell, he meant something to me.
I hope his work will mean something to you too.