Van Gogh with a Resonator

Remembering Chris Whitley, the universal bluesman

"Willie Dixon once told me, and I know this sounds like a cliché, but he told me, 'Son, you've got to live the blues if you want to play the blues.'"

So reminisced Dan Whitley, the younger brother of Chris Whitley, who passed away here in town at the age of 45 in November of last year. And though Dixon was talking to Dan, it was Chris who seems to have taken those words to heart. As Dan puts it, "Every aspect of Chris's life was for his art."

And sadly, like all too many of the country's great musicians (and bluesmen in particular), Whitley died owning little more than the clothes on his back. "Chris died destitute – all he left behind was what was in his overnight bag," says Corinne Tames, who managed Chris the last year of his life. "And before he died I made a promise to him that I would help his daughter."

Chris Whitley, a.k.a. "Van Gogh with a resonator."
Courtesy of Corinne Tames
Chris Whitley, a.k.a. "Van Gogh with a resonator."

To do so, Tames, Dan Whitley and Raven Grill manager Bob Sutton have organized two Texas benefits for Chris – one this Saturday in Austin and another on Sunday at the newly opened Warehouse Live downtown. Shawn Colvin, Charlie Sexton, Doug Pinnick, the Sonnier Brothers, John Egan, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, DJ Logic, Arthur Yoria and NDUGU are all slated to perform, as are Dan Whitley and his band. (The Web site www.chriswhitley.com also hints at "special guest appearances," so keep your fingers crossed.)

"I wanted to have these two big benefits in Texas because everyone I loved or respected musically came from down there," says Dan. Chris and Dan were born here – two sons of a blues fanatic father who often recalled going to see Lightnin' Hopkins in Third Ward dives, and who later exposed both of them to a steady diet of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Led Zeppelin albums.

The Whitley family left Houston while the boys were still little kids – and after that they moved all over the place. They would spend a year in Dallas, the next in San Miguel de Allende, the one after that in Connecticut. If Whitley could be said to be "from" anywhere, it was Houston, even though his death here was more or less a coincidence.

Tames says she had very little trouble rounding up artists who wanted to pay tribute to Chris. "I approached some of the artists, but in most cases they reached out to me," she says. "Everybody who is playing the Houston show asked me if they could play.æ Though its street date is not until March 28, Whitley's last studio album – Reiter In – will be for sale at the event, and there will be a silent auction with items like photographs, posters and other memorabilia up for bids.

Older readers will remember the hype and buzz that followed Whitley's arrival on the national scene back in 1991. Plucked out of a New York City park by producer Daniel Lanois, Whitley signed to Columbia and moved to New Orleans. There, at the Big Easy's Kingsway Studio, Whitley cut his debut Livin' With the Law. This record birthed his one and only "hit single," the eerie and spare, yearning and gentle National steel resonator guitar-driven "Big Sky Country," one of the last songs ever to slip into the classic rock radio canon.

It looked like Whitley was set to become a heritage artist. Rolling Stone called him "a visionary" and "a bona-fide poet," and Ridley Scott tabbed "Kick the Stones" for the Thelma & Louise soundtrack. Legions of critics and the suits at his label saw him as a sort of 21st century bluesman.

Nobody could ever have imagined then that this would be his commercial high-water mark. Whitley chapped at the "21st century bluesman" label, and his sophomore record Din of Ecstasy was four years in the making and a complete stylistic turnaround. John Egan, a Houston guitarist-singer and producer who calls Whitley "Van Gogh with a resonator" and his favorite artist of all time, says that execs at Columbia were awed by the album, but also flummoxed. "They knew they would have to remarket him completely," he says. "The album was full of these Hendrix-like atonal bluesy onslaughts with weird tunings, and they thought it was great but they didn't know what to do with it. As for Chris, he told me at the time that this was the same kind of music he had been making back when he was 18, 19. He was feeling boxed in, and I think he just did something to make it fun for him again."

Whitley turned in one last major label record before signing with indie label Messenger in 1998. The ensuing folk/blues record Dirt Floor – cut in a single day at his father's barn in Vermont – was the first of what would soon be ten studio albums, and Egan believes that it ranks with the very best. (Egan also recommends Perfect Day, Whitley's collection of covers. "He was a great song interpreter, almost like a jazz guy," Egan says.)

Five years ago, Whitley settled in Dresden, Germany, where he enjoyed one of his most fertile periods. Soft Dangerous Shores, the last album to be released while he was still alive, was cut there with a German rhythm section. And if Whitley never did quite accept the "21st century bluesman" tag, he did embrace what he called the "universal blues," where, as his bio puts it, "the spirits of Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Kraftwerk bond."

"The blues sound different in different places," Whitley said early last year. "But on a lonely, rainy night – whether you're in New Orleans or New York or Dresden – they feel the same."

 
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