Chris Whitley, Outrider on the Edge
November 14, 2005 9:42 AM   Subscribe

"I know these desires could kill me dead, but how you gonna act instead?" So sings eros-haunted Delta-blues-steeped songwriter Chris Whitley on his superbly dark new album, Soft Dangerous Shores, and he's not kidding -- Whitley is currently "very very ill" and receiving hospice care. After Whitley's 1991 debut, Living with the Law, the slim (drug-addicted?) songwriter was acclaimed by his peers as "the real deal." When he was dropped by Sony in 1998, he released an album of stark poetic beauty recorded in a barn, Dirt Floor. Soft Dangerous Shores updates Whitley's coiled-viper resophonic guitars with dreamlike electronic atmospheres (one reviewer describes it as "a hypnotic wrestling match between juke joint blues and Kraftwerkian beats"). Instead of posting an elegy for another underappreciated self-destructive genius a la Nick Drake after his death, check out Whitley's music (via free downloads) while he's still with us on Earth.
posted by digaman (46 comments total)
And no, I am not a PR flak or even a manic Whitley fan. I have no connection to Whitley other than through his music. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter told me several years ago that Dirt Floor was one of the best albums he'd heard in years, and hearing it, I agreed with him. More people should know about this man's music.
posted by digaman at 9:44 AM on November 14, 2005

And FYI, my speculation about Whitley's use of narcotics use is not based on any personal knowledge, but songs like "Narcotic Prayer" and the chilling "Medicine Wheel" on the new album do seem to be personal testimony. So consider it a rumor informed by the work itself.
posted by digaman at 9:50 AM on November 14, 2005

Are those samples indicative of his cd releases?
posted by Manhasset at 9:51 AM on November 14, 2005

*use of narcotics use

Are those samples indicative of his cd releases?

The live downloads now on his site are a little shaky for my tastes, but check out the three songs from the new album.
posted by digaman at 9:53 AM on November 14, 2005

wow - *this very weekend* for some reason I listened to every whitley album in my collection, especially enjoying his collaboration with Billy Martin & Chris Wood, "Perfect Day"...
posted by twsf at 9:58 AM on November 14, 2005

I would say that the live downloads are a terrible place to get an idea of what he sounds like. In fact, I wouldn't bother with them at all. He's capable of considerably more.

His albums are cheap at and you can hear 30 second samples of every track. Any one of those samples is better than the live downloads in total.

On preview, I didn't see those songs on the front page as I went to the downloads section and they aren't there. Thanks for the heads up.
posted by dobbs at 9:58 AM on November 14, 2005

Yeah the samples at Emusic sound great. There go the rest of my downloads for this month.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:16 AM on November 14, 2005

Whitley's guitar work on Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light Til Dawn -- particularly on "I Can't Stand The Rain" and "Come On In My Kitchen" -- is just amazing.
posted by grabbingsand at 10:23 AM on November 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Listening to Soft Dangerous Roads on Rhapsody now and if I like it (which I probably will, since I have a couple other of his albums), I'll be downloading them off eMusic. Teh Intarweebs! It's like living in the future.
posted by jscalzi at 10:26 AM on November 14, 2005

Dirt Floor, Perfect Day, and Soft Dangerous Shores are far and away my favorite three Whitley albums, with Hotel Vast Horizon up in the ranks too. Frankly, I can't listen to the jangly grunge stuff like Rocket House and Din of Ecstasy, though some people would surely like those best.
posted by digaman at 10:26 AM on November 14, 2005

Is he the brother of the great Keith Whitley?
posted by dios at 10:28 AM on November 14, 2005

Whitley is very much the real deal. I've seen him a number of times in very small rooms. As much as has been made of his bluesish stuff he is also entrancing to listen to when plugged into the guitar+50 pedals mode. I sincerely hope he recovers.
posted by well_balanced at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2005

Oh, forgot to mention the late solo-ish albums Weed and War Crime Blues, which I like as much as Hotel Vast Horizon.

For what it's worth, I think "Loco Girl" on Dirt Floor is one of my very favorite sad love songs, up there with Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" and "Hejira." Both the solo-guitar backing and the lyrics are exquisite:

I found my loco girl again
ah still no word for where she's been
I sense the memories on her skin
like broken glass
had broke her in
and I, an exile, recognize a friend

these chains grow stronger every year
will she defect or disappear?
this world can't hold her in its sway
maybe she'll take me there some day
when I find my loco girl again
when I find my loco girl again

posted by digaman at 10:34 AM on November 14, 2005

Wow. Gorgeous music. Thanks for the headsup, Digaman. :)
posted by Radio7 at 11:01 AM on November 14, 2005

thanks for the link, digaman. I was unaware of his health troubles, it's at least a small consolation that he is not alone in a hospital room. "Dirt Floor" Pitchfork review here
posted by matteo at 11:24 AM on November 14, 2005

Nice link, matteo.

The groove at the beginning of "City of Women" on Soft Dangerous Shores sounds like the end of the world.
posted by digaman at 11:35 AM on November 14, 2005

I saw Whitley three years ago at the suggestion of a friend who came to town *just* for the show. I was blown away; my friend said Whitley was having an "off night". Wow.
posted by notsnot at 11:45 AM on November 14, 2005

I will have to check this out.

For those who are interested in hearing other fine music from the substance-blasted depths, may I recommed We Shall All Be Healed by The Mountain Goats.

(Quickly signs off before collapsing into idolatrous fugue state)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:05 PM on November 14, 2005

Great recommendation! Thanks for the link. I hope Mr. Whitley gets well soon.
posted by Alison at 12:11 PM on November 14, 2005

My husband sent me Dirt Floor years ago when he was wooing me long distance by mail. I was so moved by it, there is such a purity to his music. Dave (husband) was turned on to him when Whitley came to Chapel Hill. At his concert his daughter, Trixie, sang with her father. She has a beautiful voice.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:38 PM on November 14, 2005

This is fantastic, digaman. I can't believe I haven't come across Chris Whitley before now. If the live downloads are a "terrible place" to get a taste of him, I can't wait to hear the other stuff.

Frankly, this live stuff I'm listening to now is worlds better than almost everything coming out a recording studio these days.
posted by malaprohibita at 1:18 PM on November 14, 2005

I agree, but wait'll you hear Dirt Floor and the new one.
posted by digaman at 1:26 PM on November 14, 2005

grabbingsand, thanks for that Wilson tip. I just bought "I Can't Stand the Rain" from iTunes, and it's beyond belief. What a marriage made in Heaven is Whitley's guitar and Wilson's voice.
posted by digaman at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2005

Thanks for the link. Great stuff
posted by Outlawyr at 1:39 PM on November 14, 2005

Having seen Chris Whitley perform live, I can't say that news of his poor health is a surprise. The man did not look good. As for his narcotics use, I can't speak to that, but he did smoke like a reggae band the night I saw him.

It makes me happy to see him get a few new listeners.
posted by stet at 2:36 PM on November 14, 2005

Perhaps this would be a fitting epitaph

I wanna go there, I'm gonna climb
Now I dont know about no law I dont seen no crime
God there aint no reason, cant get no rest
I wanna get down to the water and get undressed

I cant stand it, How can I stay here?
I cant wait to see them walls fallin down

Tell me Jesus...why they run?
Is it by the weight of the woman or the weight of the gun?
I got fifteen minutes, now I just dont care
I'm gonna take this all for granted when I get there

I cant stand it, I cant stand it
I cant wait to see them walls fallin down X2

There'll be no war tomorrow, Sunday Rhyme
You know that all good things will come in their good time
I put the ball peen hammer right through that door
Now I dont pretend to understand no more.

I cant stand it, I cant stand it
I cant wait to see that wall falllin down

-- Ball peen Hammer
C. 1997 Chris Whitley

posted by timsteil at 3:15 PM on November 14, 2005


Sorry, can't add much more.

I only saw him perform once, but it was phenomenal.
posted by jokeefe at 3:44 PM on November 14, 2005

Walk it with the father
Talk it with the son
Baby got vision child
Like a loaded gun
She use my body
Like carrion crow
Doing our transmission thing
On dust radio

Baby call the number
Nobody left in town
Baby paint skulls and constellations on the ground
Where she lay me gently, she lay me slow
Somebody receiving up there
On dust radio

Walk it with the spirit
Talk it with the spine
Mama sing "Open up yourself when worlds align"
My secret Jesus,
The good red road
On blood antenna
And dust radio

posted by digaman at 3:53 PM on November 14, 2005

well put digaman

this boy will have a red carpet waiting for him.

I just wonder about his actual condition. Hospice is a very scary word when it comes to someones health situation.

Makes no diff what his ailment is....just wondering if we can ever plan on buying tickets again.

still sad with Dirt Floor on repeat.
posted by timsteil at 4:12 PM on November 14, 2005

I used Dust Radio in my first mix for the MetaChat swap.

*sighs, even more sadly than before*
posted by jokeefe at 4:45 PM on November 14, 2005

I saw him sing "Poison Girl" and "Big Sky Country" at lunchtime on Fountain Square in Cincinnati back in 1991 or 92, while his a&r people handed out cassette tapes. I remember that his voice was much too sexy for the midday sun.
posted by tizzie at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2005

posted by digaman at 7:27 PM on November 14, 2005

I only have a "Best of" album of his, and I haven't listened to it in a while, but he's obviously very talented. I heard he was really huge in The Netherlands.

Anyway, I hope he recovers (although the fact that he's in a hospice doesn't bode well).
posted by Devils Slide at 7:08 AM on November 15, 2005

I never knew anyone else knew of him. I first discovered him through college radio with his first album. From then on he has been a big mystery as to why he is not better know.

Thanks for the heads on the new album.
posted by fluffycreature at 4:50 PM on November 15, 2005

The friend of mine I mentioned upthread says it's late-stage, untreatable lung cancer. Fuuuuck.
posted by notsnot at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2005

I bought Whitley's first album on cassette back when it came out and now I'm super pissed that I have no cassette player. Still, since I already purchased it I shan't feel bad about downloading all the tracks tonights - thanks for the reminder digaman.
posted by longbaugh at 11:18 AM on November 18, 2005

Oh, and he also provided the song for the Geena Davis and Brad Pitt sex scene in Thelma and Louise thus making me shout out excitedly in the theatre only to get several very strange looks from confused patrons.
posted by longbaugh at 11:20 AM on November 18, 2005

an update

Further info on Chris Whitley posted by his bro:

Thanks to all for the kind words for my brother Chris and my family. For
those who are not aware, hospice in home care is in fact for the terminally
ill. A while ago Chris was formally diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in
its advanced stages. As I type this Chris is resting peacefully and is in
little physical pain, at one point today he grabbed my hand firmly as I
spoke to him, looked at me and smiled his usual knowing smile but that is
all and that was quite enough. I wish I could say more to ease your minds
but I cant and im truly sorry, living this and writing this is the hardest
thing ive ever had to do in my
life without question.

Love and light,
posted by timsteil at 4:01 PM on November 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

This is truly sad news. Ever since Dirt Floor, Chris Whitley is one of the few artists that I looked forward to releasing new albums. Simple, beautiful, one of a kind.
posted by jtibbetts at 11:42 AM on November 21, 2005

Dear Brother Whitley,

I just heard the bad news. I'm listening to Perfect Day and thinking that the world could have used a few more tunes from you. But I hope you are in peace and all pain is ended.

Laura Jane
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:03 AM on November 22, 2005 [1 favorite]


there was just a post saying chris had died....then it got pulled.

Fact? Fiction? Rumour?
posted by timsteil at 9:51 AM on November 22, 2005

never mind

as Cronkite said 42 years ago today

"It's official"

posted by timsteil at 10:33 AM on November 22, 2005

Tears instantly flowed from my eyes when I read this news.

In a world of manufactured music without any sense of soul, Chris Whitley was a true voice of pain, wonder, pleasure, sensuality and beauty. His music will certainly withstand the test of time.

I was a teenager when I first witnessed Chris in Greenwich Village, playing a beat up Dobro on the fringes of Washington Square. He seemed bound to that guitar by the threads of his very being, his fingers flying over the fretboard with an urgency and intensity that I had never seen that close up. I used to trek to the Village with the specific goal of finding Chris on the street, to hear him play and sing, and he was always shy, but seemed happy to see me, someone who appreciated his soul and his awesome talent. Sometimes there were cute girls hanging onto his every word as well, and I'd make small talk with them while watching Chris play. I was much more interested in the music, though some of those gals where hella cute.

Years later, I was living in San Francisco, and my then wife Hellene and I were in a record store in San Rafel, all of a sudden she exclaimed, "OMG, Chris has an album!". I then found out that Chris Whitley was a shared thread in our lives - one of those cute girls was Hellene, and she was living with him right around the time I'd go and see him play. What a strange coincidence! We went to see Chris play when he toured for "Living with the Law", he greeted us backstage, and the three of us laughed together when we realized the mutual connection. He dedicated a song to Hellene at that show, all the women standing around us looked at her with such jealous eyes, but she didn't care. Chris had made the big time, and we were so thrilled for him.

When "Dirt Floor" was released, I called his manager and explained the friendship, and that I wanted to buy 100 copies of the record to give to all my friends. It's the best music he's ever recorded, the closest thing to his early work, and I only recently gave away the last copy to a close friend.

I could go on and on, but I just wanted to let everyone know that the Universe has a new musician in residence. Hendrix and Chris are probably jamming on "From One Island to Another" at this exact moment, and Link Wray is whispering to Frank Zappa, "who in the hell is this kid? Shit, he plays like an angry angel".

Peace to you, Chris, and condolences to your family and many friends.

posted by dbiedny at 12:17 PM on November 22, 2005

Yeah, it's official. Damn.
posted by notsnot at 2:04 PM on November 22, 2005


Oh hell.
posted by jokeefe at 4:51 PM on November 22, 2005


posted by trip and a half at 8:22 PM on November 22, 2005

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