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Expatriate Act

Chris Whitley's transatlantic musical journey


It is 11am in the morning on November 2, the day that the United States of America will elect its next President. Chris Whitley is enjoying a balmy morning in Austin, TX, which, the American singer/songwriter tells me by phone, is one of his very favorite towns in one of his very favorite states in his favorite country in the world. However, Whitley -- perhaps best known for his debut tour-de-force, the Daniel Lanois-produced Living With The Law -- no longer lives in the United States, instead calling Dresden, Germany, home. Yet, the music he plays -- a National Steel-forged fusion of blues and rough-hewn, wide-open-spaces folk -- is American to its very core.

Whitley's currently touring here under two new stateside releases, War Crime Blues and the low-fi career retrospective Weed, the title of which seems to fit Whitley perfectly. Try and kill his music, and he'll just spring up again somewhere else, perhaps on a tiny label with little capital but plenty of fertile soil in which to grow artistically. "Weed" or no, Chris Whitley is a survivor, his angular brow and high Cherokee cheekbones raised proud against whatever fashionable winds happen to be blowing at the moment. On this day, at this hour, talk generally circles back to the government, and the possibility of another kind of wind: Change. Not that any of it's going to change his music all that much. If you know one thing about Chris Whitley, know this: He can grow anywhere he's planted.

"I actually put out War Crime Blues more than a year ago in Europe," Whitley says. "It wasn't written around these elections at all. Really, I didn't even know what was inspiring it. Looking at it now, a lot of it was living in Dresden and being an American and feeling my own awareness of -- or lack of -- history. At the same time, the World Trade Center came down, and I guess I started to ask questions. I woke up one morning in Dresden -- which we bombed the shit out of (in WWII), remember -- and looked out the window on September 12th at this empty lot with an American flag at half-mast and all these candles around it. I thought it was Martin Luther King Day or something...we bombed the shit out of this city, and there's this American flag at half-mast for the World Trade Center! It kind of shocked me -- my own sort of American isolatedness, if you will. A lot of that went into the record. I can't really write that sort of thing well, that topical shit. I mean, I can't do it honestly. Bob Marley could do it. Sting does it and it sounds ridiculous -- like rhetoric. And it's way too important to sound like rhetoric. You can't turn it into jive or sloganeering."

Whitley says he doesn't let the current wave of US resentment bother him. For one, he understands it. But with his multicultural heritage -- German, French, English, Cherokee -- he also isn't willing to let the European countries off the hook, either. You'll never see a weed in any Garden of Eden, after all.

"We (Americans) are European too, when you think about it. The States are still a metaphor, even for Europeans. It was formed by European dreams, if you take away the American Indians. If we want to talk about war crimes or "God-killing" or amorality, shit starts right there. I'm a Cherokee on both sides, and I always start feeling a bit funny about that whenever (Americans) start complaining. Even Europeans. I often take up for the States in conversations with Europeans. Who the hell do you think formed us? We're formed on a historical bit of repetition. Not that we learn from that history."

Whitley, thankfully, has learned from his own history, including struggles with substance abuse and the typical record company nightmares. For Whitley, that included a xenophobic Sony deal that made the singer an import-only act for years overseas.

"My last two Sony records didn't come out in Europe, and I was offered this little bit of money -- like $2,000 or something -- by a French label, and it was an opportunity to look back through something and make a little dough and also play some songs people never heard in Europe."

It was also a chance for the songwriter to get back down to basics, to a one-man power trio comprised of voice, steel guitar, and big black boot. Added to his criminally underrated 2003 release, Hotel Vast Horizon, Whitley's last three records have been exercises in restraint. With his upcoming record, Whitley promises fans they'll once again see him in full bloom.

"I have another record that's done that I did with Malcolm Burn," Whitley says, "who I did Living With The Law with. It's a good deal more "produced," and not so much rock. It's computer and a lot of keyboards and shit. With the last three records it was mostly pragmatic: it was cheap to make. I think I've always been leaning towards the primitiveness in these last three records. There's something I trust about them. The fact that there's no production value is a production value in itself. It's not what I grew up with, though: I grew up with the Beatles White Album and Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, where people would use the studio as an instrument. This new stuff, the minimalist stuff, it's a documentary -- there's not much illustration to it. (But) being expressive is what's important, no matter how you do it."

For a man who's been "weeded out" in just about any way you could possibly interpret the term, Chris Whitley, rock survivor, doesn't have to worry too much about being expressive these days. The very fact that he's still with us and still recording gems like his two latest is expression enough.

Chris Whitley plays the Evening Muse Saturday at 10pm; Tickets are $10.

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