Note: I’ve been working on this one forever; still very much a work in progress, but I’m sharing it anyway because LOVE + FAITH. It falls apart toward the end, reflecting my inability to capture why Chris is sui generis imo and why his music should live forever!
In Part 1, I analyzed Chris’s quantitative achievement, mostly in terms of album sales and chart toppers but also in terms of tour revenue and streaming numbers. Here, I address Chris’s qualitative achievement: how music critics reviewed his music and how he influenced and was assessed by his fellow musicians. What becomes clear is that those who listened to Chris’s music didn’t just “like” it but were devoted to it. As Chris himself said, “I guess I have a bit of a cult following now or something, and that’s kind of cool with me.” [“Bastard’s Blues,” Montreal Mirror 2004]
Chris’s ‘Success’ – Reviews & Accolades
Although, in terms of ‘the numbers,’ Chris was not a hit with the listening public, music critics were quite laudatory in their assessment of Chris’s music, guitar chops, and songwriting prowess, applying a host of complimentary adjectives to Chris’s individual and collective efforts.
- Reviewing LWTL for Rolling Stone, Paul Evans wrote: “[A]s a lyricist, Whitley musters a breathtakingly distinctive voice” and “[T]here hasn’t been music as wise as Whitley’s in quite some time.” Evans also described Chris as “riveting and original,” “visionary” and his music as “bona fide poetry.”
- The New York Times described LWTL as “an album of intense brooding mystique” and “a grainy masterpiece.” In a preview of the then-upcoming Tribute to Robert Johnson at the JVC Jazz Festival, a Times music critic noted the musicians to perform, emphasizing “the stunning Chris Whitley, whose career always seems to be on the rise but never gets to where it deserves to be.”
- Reflecting on Chris’s music catalog, The Detroit Free Press opined that “The notable constant has been the quality of craftsmanship, and the consistent question of how Whitley’s combination of super songs, muscular-but-poetic lyrics, athletic voice and rock-god guitar work hasn’t earned him a wider audience.”
- Andrew Dansby, in a review of Live at Martyrs’ for Rolling Stone, raved “The post-Hendrix explosion of whammy-bar wankers hasn’t produced a single axe-man who can compare to Chris Whitley. His eerie, bluesy voice and American gothic tunes frequently draw attention from the fact that he picks like a pissed off Doc Watson jacked through a Marshall stack. Whitley has never been one to sit still, shifting gears from the dusty beauty of his last album, the spare Dirt Floor. This live album, Whitley’s fifth release, finds him making plenty of racket with just his voice, guitar and the occasional stomp in Chicago last year. Familiar tunes drastically restructured, a handful of new tracks, a Kraftwerk cover . . . you can have your Frampton, this is how you make a live album.”
- Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers in Acoustic Guitar: “The same creative restlessness that carried Whitley to the fringe of the music business also made him an inspiration to musicians, as well as a guitar hero to those who question conventional guitar heroism. Whitley had little interest in blues guitar calisthenics or the melodic possibilities of slide. Instead, his approach to the guitar was closer to that of Joni Mitchell, with low-pitched, off-the-chart tunings and jazz harmonies wrapped inside open-string drones. Whitley’s voice was steeped in soul, often rising into an Al Green-like falsetto, and his lyrics carried listeners from dusty border towns to dreamlike visions influenced by surrealist poetry. All these elements combined to put the music of Chris Whitley right where he always wanted it to be: in a category of its own.”
- An obituary in the Houston Chronicle lamented that “Whitley never attained anything resembling Beatle-esque acceptance. But those drawn to his music did what fans of the Beatles and Bob Dylan did: They talked about them. Their intricacies, their differences, their flaws, their moments of genius. Whitley was a blues artist like both of those acts were blues artists. He was a blues artist like the late Gatemouth Brown was a blues artist. His music – regardless of how big or little he made it sound – offered his insight on the human condition during his time and era.”
- Doug Collette, writing about his favorite live show of 2004 (Chris at Club Metronome), highlighted Chris’s singular style: “There is, after all, little that is predictable about Chris music even now after thirteen years of touring and over a dozen official and unofficial recordings. His albums as well as his concerts follow no discernible pattern except that of the instinctual artist willing to follow his muse wherever it takes him, all the while never forsaking the inimitable style he can rightly call his own.” In a review of Reiter In, a posthumous album, Collette described Whitley’s death as “a tragedy that robbed us of one of the most distinctive yet unheralded musicians of our time.”
- Anointing Chris “a generation’s lost voice,” Jeff Miers noted that, although Whitley achieved little commercial success, “there is, in the wake of his death, a distinct feeling that something has been lost, that the music world has been robbed of a rare and precious talent. …. [W]hat fans of Whitley’s consistently sublime art have left following his passing is the music. And what a gift that is to those who’ve taken the time to befriend it.”
- Interviewing Chris upon the release of War Crime Blues, Joy Sculnick of the New York Times opened the article writing “Once every generation, a musician emerges to grace us with rare artistry and genius. Chris Whitley is one such artist. …. Over the last 13 years, … Whitley has gifted us with eight original albums, all filled with compositions that are at varying times raw, moody, sensual, and soaring. … Whitley’s voice always takes us a journey through the human experience. 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 ….”
I could cite many more examples, but to illustrate the consistency of these positive reviews, I’ll suffice by providing a link to my collection of articles and a photo gallery of album reviews from Billboard.
In addition to being positively viewed by music critics, Chris was appreciated – in some cases, one could say revered – by fellow musicians. Wikipedia lists “notable fans” of Chris’s music including ATO co-founder and collaborator on Rocket House Dave Matthews, blues guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr., Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bruce Hornsby (collaborator on Rocket House), Tom Petty (invited Chris to open for him on the Great Wide Open tour), Myles Kennedy, Don Henley (The Eagles), Iggy Pop (The Stooges), Alanis Morissette, and Keith Richards, among others.
You can add to that list Bob Dylan, who invited Chris to open for him on a few gigs in Europe during June 1991. Joy Sculnick, interviewing Chris about War Crime Blues for the New York Times in 2004, provides this gem:
Apparently, Dylan is a fan of Whitley. The two met several years ago following Whitley’s show at a Stockholm club. “He (Dylan) came and sat through a set of mine. He shook my hand. I was scared. I really did grow up on him. My parents listened to him…And then years later I was in Stockholm again. A journalist came to me, ‘Remember that gig with Dylan?’ The guy says to me, ‘I did an interview with Dylan that night and I asked him what he thought of your set. And Dylan said, ‘Man, I had goosebumps.’”
Other recording artists who appreciate Chris’s music include Ann Wilson (Heart), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Jeff Lang (collaborator on Dislocation Blues), Dougie Bowne (The Lounge Lizards, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithful – collaborator/co-producer Din of Ecstasy & Terra Incognita), Bob Weir (The Grateful Dead), Craig Street (producer of Dirt Floor & Perfect Day), Rob Wasserman (collaborator on Trios and A Note of Hope), and Chris Wood and Billy Martin (of Martin, Medeski and Wood, collaborators on Perfect Day). That’s not to mention all the musicians who asked Chris to contribute to their music: Joe Henry (Fuse), Cassandra Wilson (Blue Light ’til Dawn & New Moon Daughter), Shawn Colvin (Fat City), Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum – Faces & Names), Michael Shrieve (of Santana – Fascination), and Chocloate Genius (God Music). You can view a fuller list and listen to Chris’s side work here. Below are just a few quotations from these admirers:
- “As a producer, I’m really interested in interpretation,” Street continues. “But most people don’t even begin to put their own personalities into their music. Chris, though, has gone all the way through the blues and out the other side. He’s really the only guy around who has that thing that Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson had–the ability to write evocative songs and get them across by singing and playing the guitar with a real individual spirit.” – Craig Street in Billboard, Vol. 110 Issue 11
- Craig also celebrated Chris’s music when responding to a question about the “payoffs” of being a music producer: “Seeing somebody like Chris Whitley sitting in a tool shed in the back of his father’s house, just possessed, and you realize that you are in the presence of nature at its purest, you’re in the presence of the divine. That’s worth it to me.” – Producing Hit Records by DJ Farinella
- “Chris is an example of one of those things that appalls me about the record industry – and, unfortunately, it is an industry. That is, how could a talent like his go relatively unnoticed? So few singers have their own personality, and Chris is his own man to the bone. Honestly, I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. My music I’m critical of. But I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris makes.” – Dave Matthews in Billboard
- “Chris Whitley, my friend since 1988. The deep soul he was gifted with is the soul that challenged his life journey. I will forever remember his beauty.” – Daniel Lanois in Paste
- “Last November Chris Whitley died, and with him went a big part of modern American blues music. There aren’t many fighters for the cause, and Chris never gave up on his mission. His somewhat prostrated place in pop culture earned him a sidebar of an obituary, but to those who knew his work, it registers as one of the most underappreciated losses in all of music. …. Do this: Track down the song “Serve You” from a record called Rocket House and see if you’re not moved. You don’t have to buy every album Chris Whitley ever made (though no one could call you compulsive if you did), but you need to listen to what this incredible musician used his life for.” – John Mayor in Esquire
- Listing the ten albums that changed his life, Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge, Slash) discussed Dirt Floor: “I’m going through a massive Chris Whitley phase. He was an American singer who did kind of a modern version of the blues, but there was an authenticity in his voice and his guitar playing that I hadn’t heard before. He took elements of Robert Johnson, a lot of what was going on with the Delta Blues, but he was using these very unique tunings. Dirt Floor is so stripped down – it’s just him and his guitar, no producer or anything. You can hear his brilliance shine through. He died young, which was heartbreaking. It’s one of the great mysteries to me: why more people don’t know about Chris Whitley.”
- Ann Wilson (Heart) is especially fond of Perfect Day: “I love this album because it is so intimate. Chris’s tangled, smoky vulnerability is wide open here and there is no effort made to pretty things up with production. Rather, there is nearly no production at all save for a kind of 4 am, relaxed and buzzed atmosphere. This is a covers album that I believe really takes the versions somewhere wonderful. As a singer, he is in my top four of all time and I love hearing him this naked. You can feel him right through the skin to the bone and all the way down to the soul.” [source]
- According to the Messenger Records website, Bruce Springsteen chose Dirt Floor as one of his favorites of the year.
Furthermore, even though Chris was not a popular recording artist, his death in 2005 was widely recognized across the music industry; many media outlets – not just music magazines – from the New York Times to National Public Radio to the 2006 Grammy Awards noted his passing and applauded his musical achievements (You can read a collection of obituaries here).
Chris never won a Grammy, but he was an inaugural judge for the Independent Music Awards and was recognized twice by that group: 2004 Best Song – Folk/Singer-Songwriter for Breaking Her Fall and 2005 Best Song – Blues/R&B for Her Furious Angels.
If Oscar Wilde was right that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” [which includes the caveat “that mediocrity can pay to greatness”], then musicians who covered Chris surely admired him, as illustrated in this playlist:
No video for this one, but here’s Don Henley of The Eagles covering I Forget You Every Day:
How Chris Perceived His ‘Success’
“I never had an ambition to win the lottery,” he said. “My goal was to have a career, make a life out of it. Not have one hit and go away. I want to keep challenging my audience, which is very hard to do within the industry right now.” [Philadelphia Inquirer]
“What I came to terms with by making some small indie records and meeting other people who work in that way is that, hey, if a record doesn’t do blockbuster numbers, then that’s OK,” Whitley says. “Even if ATO doesn’t want me anymore, I could move to Santa Fe, make little records, advertise them on a Web site. I could even get a job and give the records away. I feel more comfortable with my place in the culture now and the fact that I don’t have to fear the cool police or this cult of youth.”[Billboard]
“I was naive enough to think I could just make records, forgetting it’s a marketing world and (music) is a commodity,” he says. “It’s not about being as creative as possible. Unless you wanna get dropped.” …. He decided that artistic, if not commercial, redemption would have to be enough and he set about making Dirt Floor, a solo acoustic tour-de-force recorded over a single day. “It’s kind of an isolated guy afraid of the modern world, displaced in urban stuff and trying to find his way in a disposable culture,” explains Whitley of the resulting album. While sonically quite different from either of his major-label works, it nevertheless follows his ongoing theme of spiritual yearning. “I hesitate with the word spiritual,” he says, “because it comes off as dogmatic and people automatically think of religion. I don’t think of them as the same thing. I think the spiritual impulse is mostly what informs truly expressive tunes, whatever the kind of music it is.” [Whitley follows the indie road]
Chris Whitley is just a vulnerable guy who needs encouragement like anybody else. [re Dirt Floor, Chris says,] “I just wanted to write more songs and not think about how fucked up this last year has been or what mistakes I’ve made.” … I can’t resent other people, that’s one of the things about surviving. I want to keep growing, and I want to keep an edge. I don’t want to calm down exactly, but I did need to nurture myself, creatively speaking. …. It isn’t the form of the music but the urgency. That is, not trying to conform to something or be a commodity.” …. [I]t’s important to note that Dirt Floor is a direct, visceral emotional recording that communicates with an immediacy lacking in many contemporary albums. “Form guides everything now. Form over content. There is a whole disposable nature of what we are sold and how efficiently we are sold it. I wanted to do something fragile and clumsy. …. When I made Din Of Ecstasy I wasn’t trying to be punk rock. I just wanted to play with a trio. It’s all the same on a certain level, because the objective is to continue. I just want to keep working and reach as many people as I can.” [Smug]
How We Perceive Chris’s ‘Success’
So now Whitley is on the road for his own reasons, finally making money after years of indentured servitude.
“I don’t know if I’m searching anymore,” he says. “I struggle with my own discipline with things, but I’m trying to give up on searching and struggling. I made more money in the first pay period of selling Dirt Floor than I will ever make from records on Sony because of the royalty structure. I never made money off of touring before and now I am. I don’t just live on advances.”
As for his own artistic goals, he states, “I hope that I’m articulating something that will be valuable to other people, that I’m resonating something that says how somebody feels. You relate to this and don’t really know why, or it articulates something but it’s not literal, things that speak to your subconscious, your instincts, something underneath, even underneath an emotional level. There are things that are frustrating and there are things that are glorious and amazing. Love, death, sex, all the basic things, are going to motivate us forever.” [Tucson Weekly 1999]
don’t mourn what might have been; celebrate and be grateful for what is
2 thoughts on “Heatseekers Part 2: What Chris Achieved (DRAFT)”
Lovely post. But 2005? I can’t believe it was so long ago. I always thought Chris’ music would become more popular, be ‘rediscovered’ but I suppose that would be wrong, because the industry which just take advantage of that and make money out of him. Maybe its best that Chris remains our little secret for those of us in the know. On the other hand though (just to argue with myself for a moment) I would LOVE to see/hear a definitive anthology boxset with live tracks, demos etc. just to hear his voice with something new.
There’s a good point made in your post regards Chris’ lyrics. I think they would make for an excellent poetry collection; even separated from his music, his words would be evocative. Imagine him becoming more famous as a poet. That’s given me a chuckle.
Thanks for the post, it was a great read.
Hi, ghost of 82, and thanks for following my blog so faithfully. Re your wish for something new …. I don’t know if you’re a member of the All Things Chris Whitley group on Facebook, but we have uncovered some ‘new’ tracks there, some of which I’ve shared on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/katie54765 Also Danny Kadar – who worked with Chris on some of the earlier albums – has shared ‘rare tracks’ on his SoundCloud account: https://soundcloud.com/dannyk8r
Keeping Chris’s music and spirit alive is my retired-cat-lady hobby, so feel free to contact me regarding any questions or requests ……………..Katie