In Praise of William Elliott Whitmore

February 3, 2012

For no particular reason, today's post is an old interview with William Elliott Whitmore, one of my favourite songwriters. It was written for the "new bands" section of Mojo and published around the time of the release of Whitmore's third LP, The Song of the Blackbird (sleeve above) in 2006. His blog is minimal to the point of abstraction - he's published ten posts in a shade under three years, and the longest is 70 words, but, just like his records, the pared-down basics he chooses to share are worth their weight in gold. If you don't know his stuff, and it sounds like it might be up your street, please give him a try. His kind of honest, open and unadulterated excellence is a rare kind of treasure.


In the corner of a room at the back of a tiny bar in London's west end, William Elliott Whitmore sits down with his banjo and begins to hammer out a short set of haunted country-blues. The PA system doesn't work, so there's no microphone, but as soon as Whitmore's weatherbeaten moan announces itself, there is a reverent hush.

Whitmore has this effect. His music – a sparse, uncluttered take on country that is both elemental and timeless – and his gravedigger rasp of a voice are obvious showstoppers in an era of polished, ProTooled perfection. But his songs are every bit as stunning, dark musings on death that come from a place of very real pain.

"I began writing songs after my parents died," explains Whitmore, whose catholic musical upbringing took in the mountain music he grew up with and the hardcore punk and rap he came across in his teens. "But this record [The Song of the Blackbird, his third LP] is the end of that process. I feel pretty much at peace with those subjects now."

Two songs build on Whitmore's Waits-meets-Rubin-period-Cash solo template with a full band, and lend a southern gospel air to proceedings. And thematically, like the bird skeleton on the album cover, he has begun to spread his wings: The Chariot rewrites hymns to reveal his lack of faith in established religions, while One Man's Shame finds him spitting a warning at those who may be eyeing the profitability of his home.

"I guess it's a statement against America's current administration, which is doing its best to pollute the earth for the benefit of oil moguls," he says of the lines "Don't alter my altar/Don't desecrate my shrine/My church is the water/My home is underneath the shady pine". "I don't get too political normally, but that's a sort of cryptic way of saying, 'Don't mess with my land'."

It's a subject close to Whitmore's heart. He lives in a one-room cabin he has built on the Iowa farmstead he grew up on and took over running after his parents died. There is no running water, electricity or telephone, so once a week he drives to a payphone to call the manager he hired last year. He had been working as a roadie for the hardcore band Ten Grand when, playing a solo support slot, he was spotted by a representative of their label, Southern. It certainly hadn't been his intention, but it seems that this might have become a career.

"I always envisioned it would just be three records, that I wouldn't make any more," Whitmore admits. "These were the things that I needed to say, and that was gonna be it. But now I feel I've got more to say. I do feel I have more music in me."


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