Chris Whitley, who skirted the edges of alternative rock in the 1990s while creating his own spectral brand of American music, died November 20th of complications from lung cancer. He was forty-five.
Whitley’s career spanned a wide range of styles, from pop, grunge and jazz to avant-garde noise; over the years he worked with producers Daniel Lanois and Craig Street, Dave Matthews, members of Medeski, Martin and Wood, and DJ
Logic. He is best known, however, for carving a personalized, often brooding take on country blues, marked by his mastery of the slide steel guitar and other stringed instruments.
After honing his style as a busker on the streets of New York, the Houston native spent much of the 1980s in Belgium,
fronting a pop group known as A Noh Rodeo. Returning to America, Whitley shifted his focus to the atmospheric sound of the National steel guitar. He recorded his major label debut, Living With the Law, for Columbia Records in 1991. Sonically crafted by producer Malcolm Burn and propelled by the radio success of the song “Big Sky Country,” the album received glowing reviews and heralded the arrival of a prodigious new talent.
But Whitley sidestepped the attention, taking four years to release a follow-up, reportedly in part due to a stint in rehab. When he did return, his music was once again wildly transformed. Din of Ecstasy, featuring Whitley
on electric guitar, was a churning nod to Jimi Hendrix, downtown noise and grunge’s then-ubiquitous presence.
A second hard-rock album, Terra Incognita, was followed by another sharp switchback, 1998’s Dirt Floor, a solo effort recorded in a single day in a Vermont log cabin. By this point it was apparent that Whitley wasn’t especially interested in mainstream success. In 2002, Sony issued a single-disc selection of his time with the label’s subsidiaries, Long Way Around: An Anthology
In 2000, Whitley released Perfect Day, a sublime
collection of cover songs by Willie Dixon, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and others produced by Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson). The past five years saw a flurry of projects, including 2001’s experimental Rocket House, recorded for Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, as well as a temporary relocation
to Dresden, Germany. Whitley’s most recent recording, Soft Dangerous Shores, came out in July of this year on the Messenger label; another album, Reiter In, is set for release in December.