Chris Whitley passed away after suffering from lung cancer in 2005. I realize this sounds silly, but I had one of those moments upon learning of his passing like I had when I was riding my bike one day in March of 1981. My mother came running outside and yelled at me and my brothers to come inside. What for? we asked. Mad yelling, which she almost never did, she screamed “because the President has been shot!” There is no describing the feeling, is what I’m saying. I was heartsick when I discovered that Chris was dead. I honestly thought, “well, music will never be the same. We’ll never hear more of that genius.” I could have cried.

Whitley’s debut, 1991’s “Living With The Law,” was as gutsy an intro to a career as was ever waxed. Bluesy, stark, starry, cliff-side deep. Haunting. And tender, too. Hard as the slide of a Ruger, soft as your lover’s insides. Noone writes this:

Who’s gonna win the medal?
Who’s gonna win the glittering prize?
Everybody out here now
No one can disguise
No one can disguise
I woke to you that blessed morning
That’s when I knew you was the one
Somebody always cryin’ somewhere
Look what love has done
Used to be when things got tight
I could bid you a well bye bye
Riding some two-wheeled sex machine
Like I don’t have to try
Now I say my my baby
My how you have grown
I say look what love has done
Some folks gonna live forever
Some they won’t never cross that line
But everybody out here now, trying to unwind
We rode out in the open
Lord I love the way that you run
Somebody always crying somewhere
Look what love has done
Look what love has done

Massive and heavy like the opening strains of 1969’s Led Zeppelin was Whitley’s sophomore effort, “Din Of Ecstasy.” Opiate addled loudness and brash fusion progressions in a power trio format, sexuality and sin permeate this gorgeous exploration of that place in the mind where sibilants congregate to make whispers into your subconscious. Head-cracking noise and gut-churning bass explode; subtle missives underscore the reality Whitley alone knew, but with which we all somehow feel we can identify.

“Terra Incognita,” the aptly titled 1995 release provided a sort of return to form with textural blues and resonator guitars illuminating a path to where “Cool Wooden Crosses” stand and your love is “Weightless as a child, lonelier than God.” An “Aerial” spires into the sky evoking the West which Chris loved so well. Emerging from the Din was a new series of outlets for Whitley, searching digital ambiance without abandoning listenability or fervor.

In 1998, Chris went to his family’s farm in Vermont to record a solo acoustic emotional masterpiece recorded live with each song consisting of voice, foot tapping and guitar (or banjo on one track). Infused with earthiness and as inexplicably room-filling as anything else he ever did, “Dirt Floor” is quite simply one of the 5 sound recordings I would insist on taking with me into exile. From the solace seeking soul who keens

There’s a dirt floor underneath here

to receive us when changes fail

May this shovel loose your trouble

Let them fall away

Now the mist shall be your blanket

While the moss shall ease your head

As the future is soon forgotten

As the dirt shall be your bed…

to the sated one who gently revels in finding his “Loco Girl” and simultaneously aches to find her again, a real life bleeds through the notes, and Whitley’s sacred harp, the instrument he was born with, is never richer than in these tracks.

There are several subsequent releases, each brilliant in different ways, and I love each of them in a way I do not with other artists. Chris was uniquely talented; his equal is unimaginable. I hope that Chris is with his “secret Jesus” after following “the good, red road.” I hope somebody received him up there, via blood antenna and dust radio. 

Rest in Peace, Christopher Whitley.

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