Chris Whitley: Americana Empathica

Chris Whitley never made it as big as he should have. He never fulfilled his potential. He was meant to be the next Big Thing, a new Bruce or a Dylan or a Neil Young, instead his star never really ascended despite Sony/Columbia Records pushing him heavily when he was launched as a major artist in the early ’90s.

Chris was playing in a small cafe on Ludlow Street back in ’91, with his mustard National resonator guitar and his unique eclectic mix of blues and something that was singularly him: an almost cosmic cowboy alternative descendent of Woody Guthrie, by way of Robert Johnson; Bob Dylan with a large dose of Texas. I saw him live once, and fell in love with his guitar work and that voice. He was magnetic. He was the best thing in town.

Chris was a fish out of water: a scruffy skinny freak in red cowboy boots standing in the hippest music and hang out joint in the East Village. He never looked quite at ease, never really at home. He looked like the shadow of Dylan was haunting him as he hit the scene decades too late. Chris belonged with the greats, but was late to the party.

Apparently once the music industry discovered Chris, they fell upon the Ludlow Street CafΓ© like locusts. Everybody who had the means to offer him a contract was there throwing money at him. I understand why he took Columbia – his heroes were on that label and he wanted to sit there with them: I would have done the same.

Unfortunately the huge record label big star treatment pushing of Whitley was a bit too much too soon for him, and apparently he struggled to cope. Like just about every big music star before him he turned to booze to cope. I never realized until later years that my beloved favorite artist of the ’90s was a drinker: his elegantly wasted look and his demeanor screamed heroin to me. I guess it didn’t hurt that I was drawn in by tracks like Narcotic Prayer and the gorgeous cover of Candy Talking. Chris at least talked the talk, even if that supposedly was not the walk he was walking.

Chris moved around a lot of a child, everywhere from Oklahoma to Mexico and his music is the pure Americana nostalgia of the road. This is music of the great American Highway, the strip malls and dive bars, the saloons and the truck stops. The headlights drip off Whitley’s genius as you barrel down some road with him in Big Sky Country, or else find another Poison Girl in the city streets.

The first album, Living With The Law, was a pared down, gritty authentic slice of Americana. With his slide made out of part of a handlebar, cut away so he could use his finger freely at the same time, and his penchant for National resonator guitars, he took the blues and instead of turning out white boy bluesy shit a la Clapton, he produced something stranger. Chris stands alone. His genre is Whitley. The debut was recorded at Daniel Lanois’ house in New Orleans, a place heavy with history and atmosphere. Apparently Errol Flynn once lived there. These New Orleans ghosts and Malcolm Burn’s production cooked up some amazing juju. The result was luscious, innovative, and totally Chris. I remember buying the album and loving it, but I knew this was going to be a tough sell.

You see Whitley hit all those sweet spots for those of us who were absolute connoisseurs of Americana by way of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. We wanted to hear about the little people in their trailer parks with their norgahyde sofas and the pain and beauty of the road. We dug the resonator, and the slide, and his reedy voice, which always reminded me of an edgier blues-ier Neil Young. We dug that unique cosmic cowboy junkie wasted look, and the purity of the sound he made.

No one was doing anything like what Chris was doing. To the music people, to the kind of people who could dig Chris, he was the new best thing. He was up there. He was going to be better than Leonard Cohen at his best. He was the new Dylan. He was doing something new out of the old original sources – he had gone back to the start of Blues and Folk and come up with a new direction. Chris had gone to the crossroads, and came back with something that was his own. Chris was out of time. He was not derived from Dylan and Young, Cohen and the like, he was one of them. He had gone to the same well, and dipped in the ladle and come up with unique. I was sold. Unfortunately your average music buyer who loved Bruce Springsteen didn’t get it.

Worse than that, he was just a little bit too weird for them, a bit too out there: the look, the guitar, the honesty and sheer Beat-ness of his lyrics – the man was Kerouac with a dobro, was just too intellectual, too hip, too NEW, too different. They wanted the same stuff done over again. He was trying to feed them new fresh sound, and they didn’t know what to make of it. The huge glitzy push, the over exposure was too much. I loved the lack of polish on the first album – but Joe Schmoe who wants to put something rocking on the juke box was simply too challenged.

I think had Chris come around in the 60s, people would have been more open, more experimental. By the time Whitley made it, you had to be Nirvana or Whitesnake. We were just coming out of the haze of the 80s, and Chris was neither butt rock, nor alternative. He was just a genius in the wrong era to easily make his mark and establish himself.

This dusty road-infused cosmic blues was exactly what I needed and wanted at that point of time, but it wasn’t until later, after New York, after everything, when I hit the road in the Beastie, my 26 ft camper, that Whitley truly made sense.

I hit play on Living With The Law as I drove down the highway into Montana. Big Sky Country filled the cabin, and I got it – I really got it. Whitley was Americana at it’s purest and most focused. He was peculiarly of this place, so totally of the road and the small towns and trailer parks and dive bars and open plains and big skies, that to really love him, you need to know and love where he was coming from.

The album made perfect sense. It made sense like Walt Whitman. It made sense like Kerouac and Cassady. It made sense like Tom Sawyer painting fences for fun. Everything fell into place. I brought all Whitley’s albums up into the front cabin, and played them one by one, up loud, the window cracked open, and the accompaniment of the sounds of the highway and the wind mixing with his voice and that slide, and he blew me away.

What was interesting and good in New York, what was fabulously inventive and unique on my stereo in the city, what was beautiful and good and stunning and genius became suddenly organic and bright. Chris was a writer. He was an artist. I felt like grabbing a recorder and pressing record, recording his voice as I heard it play through the stereo on the road, and running back to my friends shouting: “Its the new fucking Dylan! Listen to it like this!” I became fanatical, desperate. Whitley needed to be heard.

He had found the American Dream, and it was not a McMansion and a picket fence. It was not a tower in Manhattan or a ballpark in Chicago: it was an empty road, a cup of coffee from a shop that sold donuts by a cheap motel, and a trailer park with fake leather sofas and a gas heater that was more danger than warmth. It was a truck stop in a casino, and a drive that went on five hours too long. It was the biggest model of a cow in the world and some sideshow tourist action involving a house that looked like a fish.

It was a 26 foot RV, on tires with barely any tread and missing it’s back plates driving through Montana, and parking up at Little Big Horn while the sky exploded in a dry lightning storm and the antelope leapt wildly. It was Indian tacos and Good Humor man ice creams. It was places called Beach that had no sand, and places with sand that had no beach. It was the America of the vast majority: the quiet blue collar down trodden poor and hardworking.

What Chris didn’t know was he was more a hero to the common American dream than Springsteen could ever hope to be, except Chris was honest. Chris told it like it was. Rather than odes to our firefighters and red white and blue, Chris sang Narcotic Prayers, and told us, prophetically, he was going to return to the wild from where he was from.

Chris died tragically at 45 years old, of lung cancer. I was left heartbroken. He never saw the kind of success he should have. He should have filled stadiums and sold millions.

There is soul in that twang of the strings in Wild Country. There is a lifetime of pain in the words. That is the soul of this country. This is America. This is who we are. You want empathy, you want sympathy instead of ra ra ra U. S. A. U. S. A. then you need Chris. You want to know if anyone cares that you are working three jobs for minimum wage, and still you get no respect in this country that you love – Chris has got you. You want to know if anyone sees the kids lose hope and get hard and hopeless and not see a future, Chris is worried too. If you wonder where the redemption is. Where the respect is, where the understanding is that you are breaking you back and seeing no reward – go talk to Chris, Chris knows it man, he knows it and he loves you.

Chris returned back to the wild where he was from, freed from the chains and expectations of the music industry and it breaks my fucking cold calloused heart to say, Chris, buddy, I am so mad you didn’t stick around and make em listen. You could have got through to them, Chris. They needed to listen to you. Chris is the great lost American Poet. He is as important as Whitman and Burroughs. We have all made compromises we don’t want to understand, except Chris didn’t. Chris kept being Chris, kept recording the music he knew we needed to hear, and it is criminal he didn’t reach a wider audience. Maybe now in 2021 we are ready to listen. We had better be, because it is the ordinary man and woman who needs some damn sympathy and empathy, some care and understanding before the fucking lid blows off all of it.

It is easy for the rich and privileged and protected to dismiss us down on the bottom, the trailer park livers, the three job workers, the out in the cold and mocked and disenfranchised and disillusioned. They don’t have to live with the crime and the addiction and the pain. They don’t have to live with the law, they don’t see their children sinking under Narcotic Prayers. They sit in their Ivory Towers and preach peace love and understanding while our blood, sweat and tears are bleeding out into the dirt and concrete. Like Chris sang:

I can’t stand it
I cannot stand it
I can’t wait to see them walls falling down
Tell me Jesus why do they run
Is it by the weight of the woman or weight of a gun
I got fifteen minutes, now I just don’t care
I’m gonna’ take this all for granted when I get there
I can’t stand it
I cannot stand it
I can’t wait to see them walls falling down

Miss your music, Chris. I wish I had gone up to say hello after your set instead of shyly sliding away, though I guess the last thing you needed was another chick telling you that you were better than Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan or asking you stupid questions about your National resonator. If I could go back to any point in time, any place to listen to music, it would be then and there and your voice carrying out onto Ludlow.

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