Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chris Whitley: A Sad Passing

Chris Whitley
I first heard Chris Whitley on a compilation blues CD that I bought at Starbucks. The song was “Ballpeen Hammer” from the album Dirt Floor, a concise album that featured little more than his voice and a guitar or a banjo with some foot stomping. It was a glorious helping of back-country acoustic blues.

“Ballpeen Hammer” is a spare and angry song over plucked banjo--an oddly belligerent thing with clenched teeth and a bad attitude.  “I put the ballpeen hammer right through that door / and I don’t pretend to understand no more...” The words come out a little clipped and you can tell that the glare behind the words from the intense, wiry singer were meant to convey a person who had finally run out of patience. And on the same album--only nine songs and not quite 28 minutes of music--is “Scrapyard Lullaby”, a song as sweet as “Ballpeen Hammer” is acid.

It would be a stretch to say that the rest of the album is as good, although “Indian Summer” is gorgeous and “Altitude” (”...by and by we won’t need no forgiveness...") may be my favorite. But, like all of his albums, it’s a mixed affair with a few songs that don’t quite work for me. A few songs that just sound off.

I kept buying his stuff because there were always gems scattered in the mix, even on his recent anti-war album, War Crime Blues. His latest, Soft Dangerous Shores was a compellingly bigger sound. “Last Million Miles” and “Valley of the Innocent” proved that he still had songs to share. But I never found that one transcendent album; that album that I loved all the way through without reservation.

Sadly, I won’t have the chance to keep searching. Chris Whitley passed away last week, just 45 years old, from lung cancer. He leaves behind his loving family, his fans, his albums, and a legacy of fearless (and sometimes brilliant) music.

I don’t know that he was a great musician, but he was a musician who had some greatness in him. He will be missed.


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