From the Pittsburgh City Paper:
The Long Way Home
Chris Whitley chooses a circuitous musical path.
"I'd like to have a career, more than quick hits and then go away rich. Make some money, definitely,and reach as many people as possible, but I need to be growing, otherwise I think I would hate myself," explains singer/songwriter Chris Whitley. For an artist who views the artistic freedom that was cultivated by musicians such as the Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, Whitley, surprisingly, doesn't have a burning desire to enter a time machine and disappear from the end of the 20th century where strict marketing influences the narrow focus of listeners. "I just thought that's what you did," Whitley says of experimentation. "Look at the Beatles records. They were always expanding," he continues, barely audible from a truck stop pay phone in Colorado. "The idea that you're really fortunate to be in the position to make a living playing music, to me, entails a responsibility to people who buy records to be expanding, evolutionary." The subject is broached due to Whitley's continually drifting creative spirit. He was praised by critics and gained devoted fans with his 1991 acoustic-based debut, Living with the Law, which evoked the modern day spirit of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Rather than make a sequel to that release, Whitley chose to explore the possibilities of the electric guitar in a band format. The songs on Din of Ecstasy moved at jagged angles, with the rambling gait of a drifter recalling his life in a seedy bar at 2 in the afternoon. He continued his forays into the electric world on 1996's Terra Incognita. Many critics backed his explorations, mainly due to Whitley's evocative songwriting. Still, there was the hue-and-cry from fans who dismissed his electric guitar work as nothing more than bowing down to record company pressure. The accusations still agitate Whitley. For him, the idea that his material had to be easily pegged was just as hard to digest as the petulant rumor of being a sellout. In a figurative sense the negative opinions have left their scars, but he stubbornly carries on like a man on a mission. "I don't totally ignore them, although it would probably be healthier if I did," he says."You know, you have to be pretty selfish in order to be honest. There's enough rip-off things to buy in the world today." After splitting from his record label, Whitley has responded, somewhat, to the appeals of his original fans. His fourth album, Dirt Floor, features him in a minimal setting, singing and playing acoustic guitar, dobro, and banjo in front of one stereo microphone. The nine tracks were recorded in a barn with producer Craig Street. For Whitley, the new album doesn't represent giving in to the pleading of others. Rather, it's another stopover along his circuitous musical path. "The songs that are written, there's something within them that is similar, and that's the pragmatic thing, I wrote a lot of them to be played on one guitar." Once again, the situation suits the material as Whitley's playing reflects an instrumental thread that runs through him from Hendrix via Johnson. It's a style that pulls notes and pushes them forward, recalling back porch blues amid choppy electric guitar riffing. Because he is a free agent, Whitley has found some peace of mind within the music business. Dirt Floor is the fourth release by Messenger Records. The independent label offered the opportunity to release something without the machinations, fanfare and bottom-line expectations from a major record company. "I was able to stop worrying about record companies and where I fit in the'90s marketplace," he says. "I hope and I think that people still need music for soul food. I don't mean that as a style or pretentiously, but why listen to something, whether it's cool or not? Different people need different kinds of music."