–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Greatest Musician You’ve (Probably) Never Heard

by | Dec 12, 2022

In 2005, one of the top-five greatest living musicians not named Paul McCartney died. It went largely unnoticed. This musician’s work is in the digital cloud, waiting to be embraced. He is now the subject of the unfinished documentary “Dust Radio: A Film About Chris Whitley.”

Poised to be the next big thing…

In 1991, Chris Whitley’s debut album “Living With the Law” was released. He was expected to be a major star. He was a musical unicorn with the potential for both critical and commercial success on a massive scale. The depth of his talent led record executives to a bidding war. The next Bruce Springsteen… The next Bob Dylan… such was the buzz.

The album was critically acclaimed. Rolling Stone named it the debut album of the year. Their review said it had “bona fide poetry and National Steel guitar conjuring dream imagery.”

Columbia Records put a massive promotional push behind the album. Whitley opened for Tom Petty on a massive tour. He appeared on Letterman, Leno, even Arsenio. The film “Thelma and Louise” featured Whitley’s song, “Kick the Stones.” Several high-budget photo sessions and music videos were produced.

…Whitley faded into obscurity.

Despite the critical success, the industry at large viewed the album as a failure. Sales did not meet expectations. The studio’s faith in Chris was shaken. But he still had friends in high places. Whitley’s response to this perceived failure? He shifted his recording style into radical new territory. Dove into more experimental and personal dimensions with his songs. Chris Whitley gave “commercial expectations” the middle finger.

“Dust Radio: A Film About Chris Whitley” explores the trajectory of this singular artist. The documentary takes a chronological journey, weaving an album-by-album tour of his works. It features commentary and interviews from key people who know exactly what happened.

Famous musicians still love Chris’s work

Among Chris’s biggest fans is Vernon Reid, the legendary lead guitarist of Living Colour. Reid’s interview segments are the highlight of the documentary. Vernon connects Whitley the musician to Whitley the man. Reid’s perspective brings a brilliant autopsy on the “business career” side of the story. He believes that Whitley was never cut out to be a commercial success in the first place. It just wasn’t in Chris’s DNA to be that kind of guy. Chris was cryptic, poetic, and ethereal. I would love to see the unedited interview with Reid released as a digital extra.

At his best when raw and unproduced

Whitley created his most indelible work completely outside of studio budgets and technology. He recorded “Dirt Floor” in a single day, in a barn, with one microphone. Just Chris and his iconic acoustic guitar. Most fans and critics consider it to be his best album.

His prospects for mass commercial success faded. Whitley spent the next fifteen years as a nomad. He was constantly on the road, cranking out independent albums and touring. He toured to small clubs with modestly-sized (yet wildly devoted) audiences.

As the years and miles wore on, Whitley’s indulgences began to affect his performances. He would be erratic, inconsistent, but nevertheless transcendent. Chris could often lose interest in a song right in the middle of playing it. In those moments, he might segue into a song he already played minutes before. When he become bored onstage, it was evident. He could never fake enthusiasm. Chris would stop shows for up to ten minutes to re-tune his guitar. In those moments, he would mumble directions to the sound techs to get the sound right. And in an instant, he could transition from the mundane technical problems to channel something profound, leaving you awestruck.

An incomplete film with so many unanswered questions

The documentary succeeds in conveying the career trajectory of its subject. But it leaves more questions than it answers. What was it in Chris’s personal life that led him to create such dark poetry? Where did his struggles with drugs and alcohol come from? Why weren’t some of massive acts that Chris toured with interviewed? He toured with Dave Matthews and Tom Petty but neither lent their perspective. Petty was still alive during the filming of this documentary.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that those questions remain unanswered. Chris was cryptic and mysterious. Fans who met him would discover a kind soul. He was always polite and generous with his time. And yet there was always something different and otherworldly about his presence. I hope the unfinished nature of the film will send new listeners to try to find those answers in his music. Start the journey with one of his best songs:

The leaked version of the documentary is currently on YouTube in full:

Author

  • Milton Lawson

    Milton writes comics, loves cinema, and roots for sports teams that cause distress. He is an editor, technical lead, and contributor at Cathode Ray Zone.