Charlie Whitten grew up during the last gasp of the 20th century, a time when grungy rock bands and teen idols ruled the airwaves. You can’t blame the guy for looking back a bit, for rustling through his Dad’s collection of vintage records and finding some better music to soundtrack his life. Years later, the Nashville-based songwriter is rolling those influences into his own sound, a mellow brand of folk-rock that tips its hat to Pink Floyd’s psychedelic swirl one minute and Simon and Garfunkel’s acoustic wistfulness the next.
Some would call him an old soul. Others would just say he’s got good taste.
“For me, the ‘60s and ‘70s were the golden age for songwriting,” he says. “That’s when songs seemed to be the real focus, and people reached outside the box. The chords and melodies used were unheard of.”
Dreaming, Whitten’s 2012 debut, channeled some of the trippier sounds that came out of those two decades, from Dark Side of the Moon to Big Star’s Sister Lovers. The album was lush. It was dreamy. Keyboards, horns, and percussion collided, creating a soft foundation for Whitten’s vocals and guitar leads. When it came time to write songs for 2014’s Hey Love, though, Whitten took the electric guitar out of the forefront and focused on a quieter, stripped-down sound. In other words: less David Gilmour, more Don McLean.
A concept album about searching for love, Hey Love begins and ends with different sections of the same song. Fashioned like bookends, the first half tells the story of a couple parting ways, each partner in search of something else. In the second, they reconcile, knowing that things might not be perfect… but at least they’re real. Whitten took a similar approach to the album itself, which was recorded during a series of live sessions with a four-piece band. Overdubs were eventually added, too, but Whitten put his foot down when it came to the use of a click track. He didn’t want that. He wanted the songs to sway, to sound natural, to sound like songs.
“Any Charlie Whitten album has to sound like a band album,” he explains, “and I didn’t want a band of session players. I wanted a group of friends, of creative thinkers who could play the songs with feeling. I think a music album should be very similar to a photo album: a series of ‘pictures’ with the people you know, things you’ve seen, and places you’ve been within a period of time.”
Maybe that’s why Hey Love sounds so comfortable, so familiar. The songs tackle big subjects, but they do so with small, laidback touches: a whistling solo here, a burst of organ there, and a whole lot of melody throughout.
by Andrew C. Leahey