On Being Baptized in the Church of Chris Whitley

Photo Credit: Karen Kuehn from a 1989 photo shoot in NYC.


This morning, I began looking for a specific comment Chris Whitley had made about how living in Europe, and specifically Dresden, had shaped his personal/musical philosophy. Because I have amassed what must be hundreds of pages of Whitley interviews, reviews, and articles, this search entailed an hours’ long descent into all things Chris Whitley, including not only scanning printed materials and checking bookmarked websites, but also occasional “Oh, I haven’t played that song in a while” forays into my CD and bootleg collection.

I’ve yet to find that one telling comment, but, as I scanned dozens of interviews and articles in search of that one true thing, I was amazed anew by the depth and insight of Chris’s comments about music, media, culture, spirituality, Camus, French surrealism, the destruction of what had once been a vibrant alternative community in the Village, you name it. The man was not only deep but broad.  I was also struck by the reverence with which many of the writers described him and his music – the same reverence with which so many of us fans describe our reaction upon first hearing Living with the Law or seeing him in a live venue, or (devoutly to be wished) talking with him between sets.

And I realized that what we who “got” him experienced was a baptism in the church of Chris Whitley. A sacred rite fondly, devoutly remembered that made us congregants, communicants sipping life from and transformed by his often obtuse lyrics, his voice that ran the gamut from a resonating bass to an ethereal falsetto, and the jaw-dropping sound of his whatta-fuck-is-that resonator guitar. Chris and his music spoke to that not-quite-conscious something that we tamped down so we could get on with life, but that gnawed at the edges of our insomniac anxiety; he answered our prayers that surely there’s something more, this can’t be, in the words of Peggy Lee, “all there is.”[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF9mVi2KQXg]

I almost (but not quite) feel silly having written these words. But, at some level, I believe that Chris would have agreed that our devotion to his music is a kind of spirituality:

Spirituality doesn’t have to have rules or names. …. I think spirituality is more serious than something that can be classified, especially by religions defined by man. …. Spirituality can be expressed in the way someone builds a house. …. It’s not about a specialized thing you do once a week. It’s how you value life. It’s about keeping both feet on the ground, but your head in the sky.  [from Anil Prasad, Innerviews, p. 281]

And I think that creating music was a spiritual experience for Chris. I’ll (eventually) post on this topic. For now, let me share a few examples that illustrate the devotion of those who were baptized:

Some moments are frozen forever into the folds of our memory, be they tied to some particular period of time we’re nostalgic for or simply burned into our being because of their profound initial impact. The first time I heard Whitley sing is one of those times. I remember the room, the wood molding surrounding the fireplace, the dust on the mantel where the stereo rested, the few candles burning in my peripheral vision, the people partying in the background, one of whom would become my wife, though neither of us knew it yet.

It was my birthday, and my friend Nelson had seen fit to lay “Livin With the Law” on me as a gift. “You’ll like this, Miers,” he said. “He sings like a cross between Springsteen, Dylan and Bono.” With that, he slapped the plastic in the carriage, something still relatively new to us then, for we’d all grown up with vinyl. And he hit the play button.

Suddenly, I was gone, blown clear out of that Bailey-Kensington district house and straight into some heretofore unknown vista of the Mississippi Delta, except it looked like Greenwich Village, too, and somehow a street corner in Belgium that I’d never visited and the rural majesty of the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts, where I’d grown up. This music was rustic and modern, prayerful and solemn and profane and sweaty, mythic, rhythmic, Dylan, Guthrie, Leadbelly in one. I heard, logic be damned, a Faulkner novel implied in Whitley’s National steel guitar, Carson McCullers’ otherness in his swampy-yet-sophisticated vocal, deep New Orleans grit in the subterranean rhythmic shifts of the band, the primal stuff that can only be imparted by wood and steel and wire.

It was voodoo, plain and simple, I decided, and never being one to question the magic of unsuspected moments, I dove. [from Jeff Miers, The Few, the Chosen: Those who have been blown away by the music of Chris Whitley form a cultlike club, The Buffalo News, September 13, 2002]


Chicago’s storefront nightclub, Martyrs’, is now legendary to fans who saw Whitley record Live at Martyrs’ over three unforgettable nights in August of 1999. I remember them well, nearly every moment of raw, punishing beauty. I walked out sweat-stained, hoarse, feeling borderline arthritic. With any luck, tonight would inflict similar damage. But with Whitley, there’s always damage of one kind or another. ….

If there exists something like the art of musical ellipsis, Whitley is undoubtedly a master. To close out his main set, he drags out the most recognizable instrument in his collection, the National steel dobro featured on the cover of his 1991 debut, Living with the Law. It looks like it was unearthed somewhere in Cambodia or dragged behind a Volkswagen over the Rockies, but when you see him play it, you have that much more respect for the instrument’s survival.

The crowd knows what’s coming. For several years, Whitley has flirted with performing “Big Sky Country” a capella, which seems appropriate for what is probably the closest attempt at a gospel song in his repertoire. But tonight, he’s not quite there. I for one am glad he doesn’t lay the guitar down completely, instead opting to punctuate choice images in the song by bending notes and firing them out like bullets. I’m thinking something has to break, has to, but nothing. There’s just the dozen or so signature notes stripped from everything else, the ones turning each corner and maintaining the song’s integrity. In this way, Whitley demands a lot from an audience that could be uninterested in straining its ear to recognize strange renditions of already obscure songs. It’s a typical Whitley risk, but he knows he’s playing to an anything-but-typical crowd. These people seldom come out to see him on a whim, and tonight they are finding plenty of reward. [from Geoff Ashmun, Fantastic Damage: Live at Martyrs’, Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2003]


Once every generation, a musician emerges to grace us with rare artistry and genius. Chris Whitley is one such artist. …. A true poet, his lyrics are often couched in metaphor and mystery…. Whitley is an aural painter; his colors the slide guitar and his voice, a voice that is sometimes soft and careful, sometimes deep and tense. ….

. In the end, Whitley feels it is this ‘naïve innocent response’ that yields the greatest music. … a raw feeling, a need for self-expression that runs deeper than our intellect, down to a primitive place where we are most human. [from Joy Sculnick, WHITLEY WAXES PHILOSOPHICAL ON “WAR CRIME BLUES,” The New York Times, posted online March 12, 2004]

If you’re interested, follow the links below for more examples of Chris’s profound effect on his congregants. Warning: Don’t be surprised if you feel a chill down your spine or tears forming in your eyes or, as is sometimes my response, a sudden sob erupting from that not-quite-conscious something inside you that listening to Chris’s music unleashes.






2 thoughts on “On Being Baptized in the Church of Chris Whitley

  1. Thanks so much for putting this blog together. I’ve spent much of the last year getting deeply involved in Chris’s music, at times going weeks without listening to anything else. Please keep up the good work!


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