Philadelphia Inquirer
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."