Like an old-time blues troubadour, Chris Whitley was quite adept at doing his thing with just his voice, a National acoustic guitar and a stomp from his boot.
Whitley, who recently had been diagnosed with lung cancer, died Nov. 20. He was 45.
Whitley, a Houston native, first made his mark with 1991’s Living With the Law, a picturesque mix of blues and rock that featured three of his best and perhaps best-known tunes — the title track, “Poison Girl” and “Big Sky Country.” The album is straight out of the Daniel Lanois school of atmosphere — no surprise considering Law was recorded in Lanois’ studio with producer Malcolm Burn, a Lanois protégé.
On that disc and his next two, Din of Ecstasy and Terra Incognita, Whitley was backed by a rhythm section. For 1998’s Dirt Floor, his first of many releases on Messenger Records, Whitley broke things down to just the three aforementioned basics (plus some banjo). As broad and enveloping as his early efforts were, the simplicity of Dirt Floor — recorded in one day — cut right to the bone, sonically and emotionally.
While Whitley incorporated elements of different genres into his music through the years, his voice remained the same — always emotional, always believable, sometimes haunted, other times wounded.
It’s a lasting voice as well.
— By Chris M. Junior
Recommended Chris Whitley recordings:
* Living With the Law (1991/Columbia)
* “Automatic” (from 1997’s Terra Incognita/Work)
* Live at Martyrs’ (2000/Messenger Records)
* Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001 (2002/Columbia)