May 29, 1998
"Chris Whitley: Abiding by 'the Law' again" Popular Music By Tom Moon INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC Back in 1991, the nimble guitarist and songwriter Chris Whitley had one of those debuts most recording artists dream about: Living With the Law (Columbia) was hailed by critics as a dusty, impressionistic triumph informed by Southern Gothic storytelling and the rueful wisdom of the blues. A song from it was featured in Thelma and Louise. There were comparisons to Tom Petty and other rock stars. Since then, Whitley, who will appear solo at the Tin Angel on Saturday, has struggled with that album's long shadow. He's written and recorded two collections that were worlds away from the earthiness of "Living," albums that employed noisy guitars in the service of trippy, psychedelic moods. These were not exactly well-received, and when Whitley took time off last year to examine the state of his career, he says, he found himself wanting to write more elemental songs again. "I tried not to feel like I was going back," Whitley said of the songs he wrote for Dirt Floor (Messenger), his current solo-acoustic project. "But I wanted to ground myself. . . . Living With the Law was written very pragmatically--the songs could all be played solo. And they were written in a hungry way-I was working in a factory when I wrote most of those songs. That was what I wanted to recapture." He did. Dirt Floor, which was recorded in a day in a barn owned by Whitley's father in Vermont, has the urgency of Living with the Law, and shares that album's gracious, patient, open-prairie sense of melody. But it's also shaped by bitterness: Songs such as "Accordingly" and "Indian Summer" revolve around metaphors for love and expressions of yearning for human contact. Harrowing and alive with truth, these pieces are underscored by the weepy slurping of slide guitar. "I wanted to do something where I wasn't trying to write a radioish thing," he said by phone from his Manhattan apartment. "That is by itself fulfilling. . . . There's no ear candy in it. It's not necessarily just fun to listen to." Whitley added that his commitment to long-term growth-not hits-is what led him to release Dirt Floor on the small independent Messenger label. After he and Sony Music parted ways last year, Whitley decided he needed to get something out quickly, and begin what he characterizes as a "rebuilding" process. "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. I mean, Bold As Love was made by a different Jimi Hendrix than the one who made Are You Experienced. All the people I've loved have moved around like that. It used to be the goal."