In death as it was in life: Chris Whitley, a Texas songwriter perhaps best described as an avant blues musician spurred by an eclecticism that seemed more interested than affected, died on Nov. 20 in Houston, five weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 45. In light of his critical lift following 1991’s spectacular Living with the Law, Whitley’s lack of popular acceptance was always disappointing but never confusing: His music wasn’t esoteric or abrasive, but it wasn’t adulterated for popular consumption, either.
Whitley sang in a honey voice botched by sand and begged resonating alien tones from an electric guitar and a bottleneck slide. Indeed, Whitley’s music was his own, a creation of vision demanded unapologetically for and from personal demons and open to influence (collaborators included Bruce Hornsby, Dave Matthews, DJ Logic and Daniel Lanois). Matthews, one of Whitley’s biggest champions, attempted to make him famous in 2001, releasing Whitley’s wildly adventurous Rocket House on ATO Records, Matthews’ new RCA imprint. But, as major label debuts go, it was a tough sell: The blues remained only in spirit, embedded in a city-streets mixture of samples and skronk tucked into huge, lifting, maddening melodies. The booming chorus of “Radar,” one of the best moments on Rocket House, is perhaps most appropriate now: “Slip under the radar tonight/ No one will know where you have gone.” Hopefully, that won’t always be the case.
Rimes with …
“So this is an odd question,” I said. And like clockwork, LeAnn Rimes’ two publicists, seated and hitherto occupied with wireless devices and notepads, looked up, ready to gasp (or stop me) in the event that I raise a question about those marital rumors that have been circulating on the Internet about the teenage country star turned pop-crossover queen. But that’s not my bag. Actually, I told her a story about Derek Bailey, the improvisational guitarist who responded to his recent diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome with an album titled Carpal Tunnel, in which he plays free variations on the same piece to document the progress of his disease. The concept was germane because Rimes, diagnosed with eczema at age 2, was in Chapel Hill on Tuesday afternoon at the Siena Hotel on a national media tour to promote a Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation-sponsored awareness organization, Treat Eczema Now, which she represents. I wanted to know if she would ever respond to her illness–which she handles through a regimen of non-steroid creams and holistic practices–through her music. As a matter of fact, she has. To find out how, see www.indyweekblogs.com/scan.