Blues & Alchemy: Remembering Chris Whitley’s ‘Dirt Floor’
2000 was a particularly big year for me personally. I’d finished high school in rural NSW the previous year and had transgressed to the metropolis of Sydney. I spent the year between two share houses, one in La Perouse, the other in Petersham. I’d be embarrassed to label it anywhere near poverty, but I was certainly struggling, studying and working hospitality to keep the roof over my head whilst my diet consisted of mostly Vietnamese baked bread and potatoes. At absolute point of desperation, one night without enough change for a train fare, I walked from Double Bay to Petersham after a restaurant shift. Despite the tough life lessons, I was an 18 year old kid from the bush in the big city and my brain was split wide open, nut-shelled by the night I sat opposite an Asian lesbian couple on an Oxford Street bus. I’d come from a country town where men were men and homosexuality was outlawed, and the Chinese restaurant inside the Commercial Hotel was about as foreign as things got.
In Petersham I shared a busted old deco semi with Dan Leffler and his older brother Dub. Dan was a guy a couple years my senior and was actually a large part of why I pursued music. At school, lunchtimes were spent in the music room sitting in awe of his fast, fluent Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman riffing. Dub was different. Thinking on it now he was still somewhat lost and figuring it out himself and perhaps he’d recognised that in me. Dub was a blues guy. He’d already tipped me to folks like Ry Cooder and both Elmore and Etta James, via his incredible sketched portraits Blu-Tac’d to the walls. One day he was playing this swampy turnaround in an open C# tuning on his old Valencia steel string guitar. It was ‘Scrapyard Lullaby’, the introduction to Chris Whitley’s 1998 record Dirt Floor.
Chris Whitley’s music was never garish, or over exaggerated, but on the three albums that precede Dirt Floor there is a definite polish. It was almost inevitable that if you were making an American major label record in the 90s, you had to be sure your production was wet and tightly compressed – God damn how I hated the tight ping of a piccolo snare, thank goodness the trend was retired. Just to be clear, they are great records. I love them, I really do, and technically, by standards of the day, they are sonically sound. All three were met with praise and those who knew, knew. But despite the critical acclaim, Whitley never really sold enough to appease the majors. I believe Dirt Floor was his reset. Things had fallen apart and he put it all back together the best way he knew how, by reinterpreting the raw Delta blues he’d grown up on.
Recorded in one day on a two-track and lone ribbon microphone in his father’s shed in Vermont, it could very well be Whitley’s Nebraska. Bruce put something out amidst a heavy trend toward slick, every-hole-plugged production to remind people that if the song is good enough, two SM57’s and a four-track is all you need. In an era of nu-metal and the decline of golden era hip hop, for me, Dirt Floor arrived just in time to explain it once again.
‘Scrapyard Lullaby’ opens the record and it immediately puts you right there in that empty barn on his father’s farm. You can almost see the sun spill through a clouded window to show up the dust bouncing from a timber floor as Whitley gently stomps a worn out leather boot, dragging the National along with its beat while his voice delicately levitates above it all, as if almost afraid to wake someone in the next room. Chris Whitley threads a certain magic and recurring alchemy throughout the record. The juxtaposition of existing in one of the biggest cities in the world, walking the streets with Dirt Floor through my ears completely illustrated the sense of isolation I was feeling. It was the sound of a world racing around me while I stood still. In ‘Wild Country’, Whitley sings about ‘breaking rocks all day on the avenue’ and at this very time I’d picked up a couple weeks work labouring with my uncle, a stone mason. You ever have that moment where you are convinced a record is written just for you? ‘Down on the pavement the laws are learned, so hard to get warm where it’s so easy to get burned,’ is wisely proclaimed in ‘Indian Summer’ by a man who so obviously speaks from experience.
The import version, the version known to me, included three bonus tracks, a cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’, and live performances of ‘Living With The Law’, the title track from his 1991 debut and ‘Alien’ which closes his Terra Incognita record. ‘Alien’ is performed with his staunch daughter Trixie who has since gone on to forge a musical career in her own right. ‘You can see now I’ve got a foreign friend, everybody knows the alien,’ the combination of Whitley’s lyrics and modest production gives an other worldly presence to the song. It’s quite a thing to review the work of certain artists posthumously. Perhaps it’s easy to get caught in the romance of it all, but I look back at people like Chris and can’t help but think they were operating as medium or some sort of conduit to somewhere not of this Earth. They carry the burden as far as they can, before laying it to rest.
Dub loaned me the CD and it did not leave my stereo for weeks – it may not have left at all had he not claimed it back. I taped a copy so it could travel with me while I trudged through the streets of Sydney, amongst the canopy of high rises, wide-eyed and alone. In recent years I’ve heard that same alchemy in the songs of Kris Morris and Matt Walker and I wonder if they had a similar experience with this album. I think it takes a special white man to sing the blues. Many who try fall short of conviction – just this bloke’s opinion. Whitley certainly sung mine and Dirt Floor will be a record I return to always.