Chris Whitley: 1960 to 2005
After quietly blazing a path of resonant blues-based songs and performances over the past decade and a half, Chris Whitley died November 20 in Houston, Texas, of lung cancer at age 45.
Whitley was able to sing the piercing moan of solitude across the scope of a vast prairie, losing no intimacy in the process. In 1991 Columbia released his first album, Living With The Law, a fully formed work by an artist then 30 and a veteran of numerous bands. Listening to it now, one hears elements of all that was to follow, from solo acoustic numbers to grand and atmospheric mini-epics that fearlessly allowed for a variety of embellished arrangements, always anchored by band interplay. For this year’s Soft Dangerous Shores, Whitley again teamed with Malcolm Burn, the producer of his debut.
Over the course of a dozen albums (including a live set and two anthologies), Whitley drew from the spiritual and emotional resonance of the blues. Genre purists didn’t tend to embrace him as fully as more free-ranging listeners, but they were missing the point. If anyone was pure, it was Whitley.
His body of work is remarkably consistent in its unwavering commitment to the transcendent power of music. His songs are filled with words of ache and hope. But the key to his riveting power is that, apart from the language of the lyrics, the sonic character of the songs addressed those same human issues. The music sounds like everything from longing to tender awakenings to the warming rays of a new day’s sun.
D.J. Logic and his turntables appeared on Rocket House in 2001 and showed Whitley to be a common denominator in numerous musical equations. Two years later, Hotel Vast Horizon was the first release with his trio in Germany, where he was living half time. Three albums followed in less than two years. Whether he knew he was running out of time is a matter that should rightfully remain secreted away in the protective circle of his close friends and family. The confessional nature of his songs left his private life alone, while his artistry touched profoundly on our common humanity.