Life After Death for William Elliott Whitmore

William Elliott Whitmore performing at the Picador in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

William Elliott Whitmore performing at the Picador in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

It only takes a brief visit with Iowa singer-songwriter, William Elliott Whitmore, to understand he’s one of those people just born old. Rustic and worn, like an aging barn that’s seen too many winters, this tattered soul perseveres by singing his demons away.

With a cast-iron voice and sparse accompaniment, often only his stomping foot and a rusting banjo, this farmer turned songwriter delivers autobiographical tales of sin and redemption in hopes of salvaging his own tattered life.

In support of his new record, Animals in the Dark, Whitmore, 30, has embarked on a world tour that makes a stop at the Rock Island Brewing Company this Friday at 10:00 p.m. He enjoys the success hard work has brought his way, and embraces the opportunity to expand his audience, but it’s home, on his Iowa farm, where he feels most comfortable.

Take a ride 90 miles south of Iowa City, down US 218, to Iowa’s SE corner, the last stop before entering Missouri or crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. This is Lee County. Hang a left near Montrose and head out into the unincorporated territory, past any city or township, and into the woods – now you’re getting to where Will Whitmore lives, both physically and spiritually.

In the fertile crescent of Iowa, where the Des Moines River converges with the Mississippi, Whitmore maintains a simple life in a cabin converted from a corncrib built by his grandfather in 1954.

This old horse farm spans 160 acres, and is shared with other relatives, whose bordering properties insulate Whitmore’s farm on three sides.  His cabin doesn’t have any running water and only a wood stove for heat. It’s stark and functional, like his music, but poignant in its simplicity and limitations. The outhouse is around back.

“I’ve already told my manager I need the summer off so I can put in a bathroom,” Whitmore said. “I love my outhouse and don’t want the neighbors to think I’m putting on airs, but nature calls.”

A little farm menagerie keeps him company: some chickens, an old quarter horse named Jed, and a mule he calls 13. The horse and mule are “hay-burners,” too old for work, but amenable to listening to his new material.

“In my mind I like to think they enjoy hearing me play,” Whitmore said. “They’ll come over to my window and perk their ears up when I play something they like.”

william-elliot-whitmoreWhitmore is the first to admit he isn’t the best picker, but he plays the hell out of the chords he needs. With his eyes closed so he can imagine himself back on his porch in Lee County, Whitmore delivers a frenetic live performance, like a whistling freight train barreling down the tracks.

Though rural at heart, Whitmore is well acquainted with the conveniences of city life. He’s traveled the world more than once, and his girlfriend lives in Iowa City, so he’s there often, but the farm remains his spiritual center.

Each season corresponds to one life cycle or another, whether it’s crops, wildlife or the pigs bred for slaughter. Life begs the question of death, but instead of the answer being intertwined with sadness, it signals a continuation from a natural sense of being. Everything has a purpose, death is just part of the process.

This spirit of renewal is something Whitmore illuminates in his music. Living this close to the land and working with animals gives him an involvement and proximity to these cyclical events that leave an indelible impression.

This creative process wouldn’t work for just anybody, but Whitmore was raised on this property, and he carries forward the elemental lifestyle his father embraced as a farmer.

Both his parents played instruments, and by listening to them and mining their record collection, Whitmore discovered the sounds of Ray Charles, George Jones, Ralph Stanley and Hank Williams. He combined these traditional influences with his passion for hardcore punk artists like Minor Threat, Bad Religion and The Pogues.

He knew music was what he wanted to pursue, but couldn’t get his head around how to make that happen. It seemed unattainable, like something visible on the horizon. It wasn’t until he started coming to Iowa City as a teenager that he discovered playing music could be much more low-fi.

“I got plugged into the music scene there, and these punk rockers were putting on basement shows – I had never seen anything like that before, I thought you had to have a fancy booking agent to play shows,” Whitmore said. “This was before I knew the term DIY (Do It Yourself), where people just put together shows wherever they could.”

This discovery was enough to spur him into getting started, but tragedy ended up being what delivered Whitmore his musical career.

At the age of 16, he lost his father to cancer. Three years later his mother was killed in a motorcycle accident.

These deaths left Whitmore shattered. He had no explanation or answer, he was adrift, and charted his emptiness to Iowa City, where he dove head first into the hardcore scene, swimming in a rage of intoxicants.

WEW 2“I had a period in my life where I thought maybe I’ll just kill myself with booze, maybe I’ll just drink myself to death and that way I’m digging my own grave,” Whitmore said.

The key to moving past the regret was to extricate the venom from his soul. Songwriting, it turned out, was the cure. Once Whitmore began writing about his demons and having conversations with loved ones passed, only then could he see a way out.

“I’ve definitely had a lot of loss in my life, like most people; I don’t know if I have any special case, but the only way I could deal with it was writing songs,” Whitmore said. “Some people paint pictures, some take photographs, but my way to deal with it was to write songs, and I really never looked back once this started to go down. It made me reprioritize my life in a major way, so now when I play on stage I think of all that, and relive those things. That’s what helps me do what I do, it’s a little bit painful but it’s the only thing I know what to do.“

He isn’t what you would call a religious guy, more like a pagan, but he has religion, and that is Iowa – its land, water, animals, his friends and family. He leaned on that and crafted a set of achingly dark tales exploring his transgressions, death and regret, and intertwined these concepts with the pastoral surroundings from his farm.

After becoming friends with local hardcore band Ten Grand, Whitmore thought he was going to be this punk rock guy. He tried starting up a band after playing in a couple garage outfits, but it just didn’t take. There was plenty of rage, but the suit didn’t fit – similar to when he was younger and attempted to emulate the crooning of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – it wasn’t punk music that was trying to get out of him.

“My roots are in country and blues, but I wanted to be in this punk band that played really fast and sang about political things, but it never felt quite right, so I decided to leave that to the experts and I’d go back to what I know, and that’s playing roots music,” Whitmore said.

His old soul took stock and moved in a different direction, channeling a voice reminiscent of a depression-era revivalist. The gravel in his baritone is accentuated by his prodigious consumption of cigarettes and whiskey, and serves to highlight the winding road he’s traveled.

“I try to have a timeless feel to the material that I write so that if someone listens to it in 50 years it will still apply to what is going on,” Whitmore said.

With both his demons and raspy growl in tow, Whitmore returned to his farm and over a 4-year period produced a trilogy of poignant albums on the Chicago-based Southern label: his debut release, Hymns for the Hopeless (2003), Ashes to Dust (2005) and Song of the Blackbird (2006).

To listen to any of these albums once, it would be easy to categorize them into some traditional blues, folk or alt-country listing, but doing so would neglect to account for Whitmore’s hardcore punk foundation. Guys like Woody Guthrie, Sonny Boy Williamson or George Jones wouldn’t have been caught mixing it up in a mosh pit or cutting their skateboards off park benches.

Whitmore playing the Java House in Iowa City.

Whitmore playing the Java House in Iowa City.

Whitmore embodies these conflicting styles both in song and appearance. He’s not an imposing figure, more trim, with sandy blond hair and a grizzled beard worn tight. Often dressed down, he’ll be sporting a pair of thrift store slacks, unassuming black boots, and a worn v-neck t-shirt. The look is made complete by his trademark hat – usually a dinged up fedora or porkpie, visibly fraying at the edges.

So styled like a troubadour, it’s his tattoos that remind us of his inner conflict. They run across his chest and down his arms. A radiant red heart with a dagger through it on his left forearm shows imposingly when he picks up an instrument.

It’s this intangible crossover quality, in both Whitmore’s persona and material, that allows him to continue gaining in popularity – a rare commodity in the music industry these days. As CD sales have slipped and the industry has failed to keep up with the online market, artists are hyper-compartmentalized and pre-packaged, in order to promote them and ensure purchase power from their perceived core-constituents.

Whitmore thus far has managed to sail above being definitively characterized. Even he is not sure exactly where he fits, but considerable credit should go to the visual nature of his songs, and the universal themes they touch upon.

On stage at the Picador. | Photo by Julie Staub

On stage at the Picador. | Photo by Julie Staub

At a recent sold-out appearance at the Picador in Iowa City, the scene was electric as Whitmore stormed to the stage. He brought with him Burlington, Iowa artist and musician, T. Wehrle to open the night’s festivities, followed by ft (The Shadow Government), which played a set and then sat in behind Whitmore, along with noted Iowa boogie-piano player and former High and Lonesome leader, David Zollo.

The place was packed before the show with scenesters, punks, hipsters, folkies and wannabes, most ripped out of their collective gourds. Typically this crowd of inebriants wouldn’t be found within a mile of a banjo, but his shows have become an event – an occasion for drink and song.

Whitmore’s folk-punk authenticity resonates within the alienated culture of the hardcore punk scene, and appeals to traditionalists as an alt-folk singer.

With good sour mash whiskey flowing strong everyone sings along when Whitmore shouts, “I’m going to raise my cup to the sky oh lord, I’m going to raise my cup to the sky.” The shots come blindingly fast to the stage from appreciative crowd members, ensuring Whitmore’s drinking cup never runs dry. With its participatory atmosphere a Whitmore show could be seen as a liquored up church with bar-side sacrament.

“I’ve had a long love affair with whiskey, I got started on that at a younger age than I should, but I come from a long line of frontiersmen that distilled their own liquor and it’s just in my blood, so whiskey seems the natural drink for us types,” Whitmore said.

Even with popular and critical acclaim building after each of his previous releases, Whitmore wonders how much he has left to say. He generally has regained control of his life. When not touring he’s happy on his farm, where his wants are few and once again he can enjoy a sunny day.

Yet even with the distance Whitmore’s residence provides from the hectic realities of modern life, the wickedness of our current times found a way inside. The country’s polarized political climate, combined with incidences of police brutality and the war angered Whitmore, who happens to be an avid NPR listener.

Well it’s a goddamn shame what’s going down; How we got to this I do not know; There’s a sick sick wind that is blowing ‘round; And the captain’s got to go ~ sings Whitmore on Mutiny.

WEWFrom this opening verse on Whitmore’s new release, Animals in the Dark, he declares war on corrupt politicians in power that would try to control people from behind closed doors. Set only to a martial drumbeat, Mutiny signals a departure for Whitmore from his inward examination of personal demons and instead unleashes his rage upon those charlatans, crooked cops, and supposed leaders that would abuse their power and harm the state of the union.

“The impetus for me was this past administration that declared war all over the world without any compassion for human life, and raped the land and pillaged the people without any regard for anything beautiful or logical,” said Whitmore.

This CD is Whitmore’s debut release on ANTI– Records, a label known for signing older outlaw artists. It’s home to such luminaries as Tom Waits, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Merle Haggard, Billy Bragg and Nick Cave. Though considerably younger than most of his label-mates, he fits because of his voice and dark subject matter.

“There’s a story arc that goes with the record, that has to do with a man, who declares a call to arms, goes to jail, gets out, finds a new lease on life and decides he has lived a good life, and the way that he can reconcile good versus evil is to create some beauty,” said Whitmore. “By the end of it he has to die, but he gets to die with his boots on.”

His songwriting is solid, and there’s an added texture to his musical arrangements, including electric guitar, accordion, layers of organ, pedal steel and cello. ANTI– is a big step up from the Southern label, and Whitmore recognizes the big sticks they swing over there, but his continued sonic experimentation is a telling sign that we have yet to see Will’s best material.

“When these ideas started coming along I knew I had to speak my mind,” Whitmore said. “An artist, whether you’re a writer, a magician or a musician, needs to be challenged, so that is what I tried to do, and I looked up to some of my heroes, Boots Riley from The Coup, Chuck D from Public Enemy, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Shane MacGowan from the Pogues, these people, that in a poetic way, have expressed their discontent,” Whitmore said.

WEW 3The title Animals in the Dark is partly metaphorical, and goes back to the serpent demon in Whitmore’s dreams. This is distilled onto the cover art, as painted by his friend, Lettie Jane Rennekamp. In part it’s a reference to all the nefarious powerbrokers out there, but it’s also quite literal in regard to the creatures Whitmore encounters on his farm.

“At night I like to establish a rapport with the various animals in the woods where I reside, from the raccoons and the deer, to the coyotes and owls, and I like to have conversations with them at night and get them howling and screeching,” Whitmore said.

Like the material on this record, he wanted the cover art to reflect a departure from the style on his previous three offerings, which his cousin, Luke Tweedy designed. By having Rennekamp do the artwork it furthered Whitmore’s desire to maintain an Iowa solidarity, and involve family and friends in his music as a means of keeping the project close to the heart.

Tweedy, who plays in ft (The Shadow Government), handled the production duties on Animals in the Dark at his Flat Black Studios, which he and Whitmore finished constructing earlier this year in Tweedy’s Iowa City garage.

Thus far Whitmore has managed to construct his career from his home base in Iowa, which is a model several of his famous friends, like Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey and Dave Zollo, have shown him by example. He’s toured previously with the Pogues, Lucero, Clutch and Murder By Death, and learned the trade from people who’ve been at this game far longer than he has. The man has served his time, and with solid DIY credentials this fire branded original is determined to persevere.

“Honestly I love life, I can get it all out through my music, if I didn’t have that I would have ‘off-ed’ myself a long time ago,” Whitmore said. “This musical outlet has saved my life, I know it’s trite, but it’s definitely saved my life, so during the day I’m a happy guy, I can laugh, just because I can vent at night. It’s taken me a lot of years to reconcile it all, but I feel good about the world.”

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