Chris Whitley Leaves Behind Eclectic Musical Legacy

Musician Chris Whitley has died. His first album, Living with the Law, featured his biggest single, "Big Sky Country." Whitley's career spanned a wide range of styles, from pop, grunge and jazz to avant-garde noise. Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers has an appreciation.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

On Sunday, the guitarist and songwriter Chris Whitley died of lung cancer at the age of 45. His best-known song is called "Big Sky Country" from his first album, "Living With the Law." Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers has an appreciation.

JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS reporting:

Chris Whitley's music was all about rebellion.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CHRIS WHITLEY: (Singing) Now when this is over, over and through, and all of them changes have come and passed, I want to meet you in the big sky country. I just want to prove, Mama, love can last here.

RODGERS: Chris Whitley rebelled against flashy blues guitar by developing a style based on hypnotic drones and unconventional tuning. Whitley also rebelled against Sony Music's expectation that he follow up his successful debut with more of the same. And he rebelled against the idea that blues, jazz, rock, soul and electronica belong in different bins in the record store. Among Whitley's inspirations were Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole and Kraftwerk. In Whitley's music, all these spirits merged in unpredictable and often spectacular ways.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) ...seems before you go; therefore I'm gone. Do come return. Rebels belong...

RODGERS: In the last decade, Whitley made great records like "Dirt Floor" and "Soft Dangerous Shores" by writing and recording in a sort of adrenalin rush. Here's how he described his creative process in an interview last summer.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. WHITLEY: That, to me, is completely what I'm looking for--is a way to break down my own rationale and a way of judging what I do. I want to make something that's not worth buying, but I want to feel like a human's lifted their head right off or something or opening theirself.

RODGERS: Chris Whitley was always a vagabond. As a kid, he lived in Texas, Vermont and Mexico. He spent much of his adult life moving between Europe and New York. He'd recently returned to New York after five years in Dresden.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) ...on me ...(unintelligible).

RODGERS: Fans of Chris Whitley's music can look forward to at least one upcoming release called "Reiter In," which he referred to as a Gothic rock album. Included on the album are songs by synth pop star Gary Numan and the psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips. Not surprisingly, Whitley's soulful covers sound like no one but Chris Whitley.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is the author of the book "Rock Troubadours." Musician Chris Whitley died of lung cancer on Sunday at the age of 45.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WHITLEY: (Singing) Well, I come down from the country, find a lesson in the draw. There ain't no secrets in the city. It's hard living with the law. They got machines, Mama, I can't figure. They got a romance made for doing time. Send me out child, running outside, out along a world of crime.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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