Smug
April 1998
by Mitch Myers


If you've been following Chris Whitley's career for any length of time, you
probably take a certain pride in having diverse musical tastes.  When
Whitley came out with his second album, Din Of Ecstasy (Work) in 1995, most
folks (including those at his record label) were anticipating a sequel to
the wide-open sound of his popular 1991 debut, Living With the Law
(Columbia).  To their surprise, Whitley had made other plans.  Instead of
playing atmospheric country blues on his trusty National Steel guitar,
which made songs like "Big Sky Country" standard FM fodder, he unleashed a
sprawling sonic overload that served as a feedback-ridden declaration of
independence.  With Whitley howling at the moon and playing harsh electric
guitar over an amped-up rhythm section, alt-country fans covered their
ears, while his record label acted as if the whole thing never happened.
His third album, Terra Incognita (1996, Work) showed a more subdued
performer striving to please both himself and the music industry powers
that be.

We all know what can happen when artists compromise to please others or
(even worse) attempt to recreate that "hit potential" of past successes.
While Terra Incognita was a fine album, it fell short of everybody's
expectations (including Whitley's) and led to an amicable parting of ways
with Sony.  Whitley sounds both relieved and apprehensive about his latest
album, Dirt Floor, the solo-acoustic follow-up on Messenger Records (that's
an indie, foks) that took two days to record with a working budget of zero
dollars.

Whitley says, "I had just gotten off Sony.  Dirt Floor was an opportunity
to release something quickly, which is not the way things are done at major
labels because a lot of money goes into those records.  We recorded this
record for nothing.  I just needed to encourage myself to write and get it
out of me.  I seem to have an audience now that just likes what I do.  I
wanted to put out an acoustic record as a souvenir thing and [as a way to]
record some new songs."

Chris Whitley is just a vulnerable guy who needs encouragement like anybody
else.  Dirt Floor digs deep into his roots and reaffirms his status as an
evocative singer/songwriter with a story to tell.  "I just wanted to write
more songs and not think about how fucked up this last year has been or
what mistakes I've made," Whitley says.  "I can't resent other people,
that's one of the things about surviving.  I want to keep growing, and I
want to keep an edge.  I don't want to calm down exactly, but I did need to
nurture myself, creatively speaking."

Fine, Chris, but what about the fact that Dirt Floor sounds like you have a
hellhound on your trail and a serious case of the blues?  "It isn't the
form of the music but the urgency.  That is, not trying to conform to
something or be a commodity.  I don't listen to old blues for a nostalgic
things, it's the intensity.  There is a degree of familiarity to rural
blues that is homey, and I can relate to it.  The stuff that has influenced
me is a subjective sum of my musical vantage point, and there are other
vantage points that I try to blend into something that I can feel
honestly."

So don't be quick to pin a blues label on Whitley just yet.  Given the
stylistic twists of his career thus far, it certainly wouldn't be wise to
categorize him in any specific bag.  "What I like about songwriting is not
so much about the old blues guys as what I get from listening to the music.
I've listened to electronic music, like Gary Numan, and felt things that I
was really turned on by.  Some of it just has to do with how the emotions
come out.  It's more about why a person is playing music in the first
place."

That being the case, it's important to note that Dirt Floor is a direct,
visceral emotional recording that communicates with an immediacy lacking in
many contemporary albums.  "Form guides everything now.  Form over content.
There is a whole disposable nature of what we are sold and how efficiently
we are sold it.  I wanted to do something fragile and clumsy.  In a way, it
seems like a guy sitting guietly is more revolutionary than a guy screaming
with a loud guitar.  I'm talking about cultural pertinence in 1998."

So are his records a reflection of balance or an intensely emotional
individual going to total extremes?  Whitley laughs.  "Proably both.  It's
the tension that I like.  The loud and soft thing is a certain anger but
also a certain empathy  The tension is like a Bergman movie, very sensitive
but not sentimental.  It can be very beautiful, but it can also be
excruciating.  Many people just want entertainment or distractions.  On the
other hand, some people use their perceptions of reality as entertainment,
like I do.  I love the tension of articulating emotions.  I also love
playing electric guitar and doing crazy shit, but my references aren't
punk.  I like Iggy and the Velvet Underground for the same reasons that I
like Muddy Waters or Bob Marley.  It doesn't really matter.  When I made
Din Of Ecstasy I wasn't trying to be punk rock.  I just wanted to play with
a trio.  It's all the same on a certain level, because the objective is to
continue.  I just want to keep working and reach as many people as I can."

Chris Whitley is obviously here to stay.  But where "here" will be next is
anyone's guess, including his.