Billboard, March 14, 1998
WHITLEY STRIPS HIS SOUND BARE ON 'FLOOR'
Acoustic Album Marks Artist's Debut On Messenger
By: Bradley Bambarger
His fallen-angel falsetto paired with a rustic virtuosity on National acoustic guitar, Chris Whitley won fans far and wide with the big-sky blues of his '91 Work/Sony debut, "Living With The Law." He seemed firmly on the triple-A contender route, but the poetic feedback and distressed imagery of his next efforts, the unsung "Din Of Ecstasy" and "Terra Incognita," were more in tune with the spirits of Cream and Kurt Cobain. Newly free from his Sony deal, Whitley has revisited his acoustic roots in the form of "Dirt Floor," a stripped-down recital of folk/blues balladry due March 17 from New York indie Messenger Records. Recorded in one day and with one mike in a Vermont barn, the nine sepia-toned songs of "Dirt Floor" spotlight the raw immediacy of Whitley's singing and songwriting, with his eloquent guitar and tapping foot the only accompaniments. "I wanted to creatively ground myself--write some songs quickly and record them without deliberating over the production," Whitley says. "Plus I'm lucky to have a pretty devoted fan base, and a lot of those people got into me with the first album and stayed along for the electric stuff. So, I thought they might like to hear and acoustic album from me." Producer Craig Street--who brought Whitley in to play guitar on new-generation jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson's last two Blue Note albums--was the catalyst for the "Dirt Floor" sessions. "Beyond the fact that I think Chris is a genius and I love his music, we get along on a lot of levels," he says. "Most of the pre-production was just us sitting around talking about books, films, music. "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." Street says he knows a lot of people would like Whitley to make another "Living With The Law" (which was produced by Daniel Lanois protege Malcolm Burn). But "when someone is as creative as Chris is, going backward is just anathema," he explains. "There are songs on the subsequent records, 'Narcotic Prayer' for instance, that are as good as anything on that first album. I do think, though, that Chris has been wary of being pretty, vocally. So I wanted him to make a record where people could hear his beautiful voice. On 'Dirt Floor,' it comes through and with a real emotional intensity." Messenger is a "temporary home for Chris to release the music that he wants to put out," says label chief Brandon Kessler. But "because we're small, we have the time to explore all avenues in marketing 'Dirt Floor,' especially all the grass-roots opportunities, so we can give Chris the promotion he deserves." Whitley's fan club has an Internet site (www.phpad.com/Whitley) that features tour dates, chat rooms, and sound clips, including the lead track from "Dirt Floor," "Scrapyard Lullaby." The site's Dust Radio electronic fanzine has nearly 10,000 subscribers, whom Kessler has recruited for volunteer promotional teams in each of Whitley's upcoming tour markets. "It's turning the core fan base into a grass-roots sales force," he says. Kessler has developed a promotion in which fans can go to either the Whitley fan World Wide Web site or the Messenger site (www.messengerrecords.com) to print out Dirt Floor Point Coupons. For every coupon a fan gives a friend to turn in when purchasing the album at selected retailers, the fan earns points toward signed Whitley posters and T-shirts. The person who earns the most points wins a Whitley notebook with handwritten lyrics. Racked in the U.S. by the New York-based Proper Sales & Distribution, Messenger has also released discs by Bobby Sichran, Johnny Society, and the Hand. (The label is negotiating for European distribution.) "Dirt Floor" will also be issued on limited-edition audiophile vinyl via mail order by Los Angeles-based Classic Records. Whitley previewed "Dirt Floor" in January for a capacity crowd at New York's Knitting Factory, with more than 200 people turned away at the door. On Monday (9), he played a set at New York's CBGB, which was taped for a spring airing on HBO's "Reverb" program. The next day, he taped a segment on Pseudo Online, an Internet RealAudio outlet, and on Friday (13), he played an in-store at the Greenwich Village Sam Goody, not far from where he makes his home. Whitley embarks on a one-month U.S. tour in late March, with in-stores and radio spots planned for multiple markets. On March 20, he guests on triple-A KGSR Austin, Texas, and plays an in-store the next afternoon at Austin's Tower Records. A show at Antone's follow that evening, with a "Dirt Floor" release party prior to the concert at Lucky's Lounge next door. The Austin in-store is the latest in a long line of visits Whitley has made to that Tower outlet over the years, and manager Tony Jones has perpared for the event by buying big on "Dirt Floor." "Every time Chris comes to town, we do well with him," Jones says. "He just needs a break; maybe Sony gave up on him too soon. The fact that the new record is acoustic should give it a boost--I know people are really into the rootsy thing around here." KGSR PD Jody Denberg echoes Jones, saying, "I think 'Dirt Floor' is the record that Chris had to make. We've played a lot of his songs over the years, but he really needed to strip away everything and start fresh. It may be a little raw for some people, but we've added the song 'Wild Country.'" Whitley tours Europe in April and May; he has a strong following in the Benelux countries (having spent a lot of time there to be near his 10-year-old daughter, Trixie, who lives in Ghent, Belgium). More U.S. shows are planned for the summer. Whitley's tours are booked by Monterey Peninsula Artists; his songs are published by Reata Publishing/Siete Leguas Music, administered by Warner/Chappell (ASCAP). Having separated from his longtime manager, he currently handles his own affairs. Between shows, Whitley has been working up demos in New York for his next album, to be shopped around after it's finished. The results will be different from anything he's done thus far, he says. "It won't be strictly solo, and I'm over male guitar bands. Right now, it's National, drum loops, and vocal, like with 'I Can't Stand Myself,' which I'm recording for a James Brown tribute record on Zero Hour. But who knows? I'm trying to establish a new vocabulary for myself, without any nostalgia. "But no matter what, I know that if I'm pure about the music--true to my aims--that it will reach people on a much deeper level. It's not an art-vs.-commerce thing, it's just that touching a few people deeply is where it's at for me."