Chris Whitley was a singer/songwriter from Texas who started out as a bluesy roots rocker before moving more and more into rock and roll and alternative rock. Whitley's CDs frequently garnered favorable reviews, but they rarely found a buyer, and his propensity to alter his sound kept him from establishing a substantial cult following among fans of singer/songwriters.
When Whitley was young, his family moved around a lot in the Southeast. When his parents divorced when he was 11 years old, they eventually moved to Mexico with him and his mother, where they eventually settled in a log cabin in Vermont.
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He started playing the guitar at the age of 15 and finally learned how to play slide guitar after being influenced by artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, and Jimi Hendrix. A year before graduating from high school, he dropped out and moved to New York City, where he busked on the streets. A listener who managed a travel agency saw one of his performances and thought Whitley would be a success in Belgium and promised to send him to Europe. Whitley accepted the offer as he had nothing to lose.
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Whitley produced a run of albums while living in Belgium that alternated between blues, rock, and funk. He had some success in Belgium thanks to the records, but in 1990 he nevertheless made the decision to move back to New York. Later that year, he had the good fortune to meet producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois was moved by Whitley's songs and assisted in getting the songwriter a record deal with Columbia Records. Whitley's debut album was hosted at a 19th-century mansion in New Orleans, though Lanois' friend Malcolm Burn actually produced it. Living with the Law, Whitley's U.S. debut album, was released in the spring of 1991. It was an atmospheric collection of blues and folk-rock that earned him a spot opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Whitley delayed the release of his second album, Din of Ecstasy, for four years even though Living with the Law appeared to set him up for a breakthrough into a cult audience. The grunge-tinged Din of Ecstasy, which was released on Columbia's recently developed "alternative" subsidiary, WORK, was an attempt to connect with the hard-edged mainstream alternative rock audience that developed in the years after the release of Living with the Law. It received mixed reviews, alienated his roots rock audience, and failed to win him any new fans. Whitley released Terra Incognita two years later, combining themes from his first two records.
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In 1998, Whitley released Dirt Floor on the Messenger label, which brought him back to the same degree of critical praise as his earlier work. Live at Martyrs' was released in the spring of 2000, and Perfect Day, a spartan studio effort, debuted on the Valley imprint a few months later. In Rocket House (2001), more soulful grooves were developed, and a variety of artists, including Blondie Chaplin, Dave Matthews, and Bruce Hornsby, collaborated on the record. He also made his debut for Matthews' own record label, ATO Records. His time at Columbia was collected in Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001 a year later.
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In 2003, two mail-order-only albums, Weed and War Crime Blues, followed the austere, naked, and captivating Hotel Vast Horizon. Between Hotel Vast Horizon and his next studio album, Soft Dangerous Shores, released in 2005, the two casual albums served as filler. For the majority of 2005, Whitley was on the road, but problems from lung cancer prompted him to postpone his remaining appearances by mid-October. On November 20, 2005, he passed away at home. 2007 saw the publication of Whitley's final album, Dislocation Blues, a joint effort with Australian blues guitarist Jeff Lang. Whitley's solo performance from 2003, On Air, which only included his guitar, was released in 2008.