Chris Whitley figures Johnny Winter is the best blues-rock record ever made

Chris Whitley - "Living with the law"


By Steve Newton

Certain albums hold sacred places in people’s hearts. They know every chorus, verse, and bridge of one particular LP. For me, that ultimate album might be Mott the Hoople’s Mott. For dobro ace Chris Whitley, it’s definitely Johnny Winter’s Johnny Winter.

“To me, it’s just the best blues-rock record ever made,” says Whitley, on the line from Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s one track, ‘Dallas’, where he played National steel guitar, and it’s the song that made me get close to a steel guitar. But the electric guitar on it’s incredible, too.”

Nowadays, Whitley—who opens for Tom Petty at the Coliseum this Monday (November 18)—doesn’t get nearly as excited about the blues as he did when he was a teen.

“I don’t listen to any of the new blues. When I listen to it, I listen to that Winter record and old Muddy Waters stuff, the same stuff I used to. There’s no new blues stuff that I really care for. I mean, I have regard for all those people, but it’s gotten to be such a strict form that I just don’t care for it now.”

Whitley doesn’t follow any strict musical guidelines himself, as one listen to his debut album, Living With the Law, attests. You won’t find any standard 12-bar blues here, just song after song of the elusive, spare slide and casual, naked vocals that first caught Petty’s ear and persuaded him to suggest touring together.

It’s a fleeting sound that brings to mind rusty roadhouses and dusty backroads: a soundtrack for movin’ on down the road. And that freewheeling ideal is something Whitley knows well, since his family had already moved from his native Texas to Oklahoma to Connecticut by the time he was 11.

“We always moved,” he sighs. “We moved before I was old enough to have many friends, and then moved again, and then kept moving.”

After his parents split up, the young Whitley moved with his mother and siblings to central Mexico, where his sculptress mom studied art; a year later, they settled in a log cabin in Vermont, where Whitley first learned to play guitar. At the age of 17 he quit high school, moved to New York, and started performing his blues-steeped slide-guitar music in public. But his travelling shoes soon had him off to Belgium, where he continued to immerse himself in an individualistic style of music.

“I was kind of in a vacuum over there,” says the 31-year-old, who now plans on leaving his home in the Big Apple for Arizona or New Mexico. “I kept to myself. I think that’s probably why I haven’t really gotten into a lot of other music, why I’m not a big fan of that many people. I’m kind of selfish, I guess—or it just takes enough of me to try to get at what I’m tryin’ to get at.”

Whitley’s dedicated pursuit of his own musical voice is somewhat at odds with the open-minded attitude of tour-mate Petty, who’s only too happy to borrow huge chunks of influence here and there—especially from bands like the Byrds. But Whitley figures the average Petty fan can find room in their realm of appreciation for him.

“We’re pretty different. I mean, to me we’re very different, but I dunno…maybe in some way—spiritually, or something—it’s similar. Some of those people seem to really like us, and some even come just for us. And then some people, I’m sure, don’t care—they want to see Tom, who’s been around for a real long time and is a pretty famous guy.”

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