From the Ground Up

Singer/songwriter William Elliott Whitmore spent his childhood on a family farm in Lee County. His growth as a performer hasn’t come easily—but now he takes his popular, soulful show around the globe.

Written by Chad Taylor
Photo by David Black

Tune in to sounds from any of the nation’s biggest cities and you’ll hear a shuffle of name-brand musicians and predictable styles: industrial, electronic, punk, blues, country and rock. But when acts from Iowa really take off, it’s usually because they formed viewpoints outside the system. They defy categorization, leaving established genres behind. Think of Slipknot’s hardcore mayhem, Radio Moscow’s throwback stoner vibe or Mumford & Sons’ eccentric mix of joyful noises. These Iowa bands and performers, now known everywhere, are fiercely individualistic.

So, too, is 34-year-old singer-songwriter William Elliott Whitmore. Proud of his roots, Whitmore still lives on his family farm in Lee County, alongside the Mississippi River. His soulful voice and reflective music convey his ties to that property; on his website, you can buy a T-shirt that says, “I play in the dirt.”

For Whitmore, finding his voice took time. Now regarded as one of the finest storytellers in the music world, his poetic lyrics and emotive vocals didn’t emerge fully formed. Early releases—2003’s “Hymns for the Hopeless” and 2004’s “The Day the End Finally Came”—reveal Whitmore’s growing pains. Critics panned his gravelly delivery as a Tom Waits knockoff. His writing, though consistently heartfelt, was sometimes trite.

Quickly, however, Whitmore’s talents matured. He grew up in front of his audiences, creating ever more confident, distinctive music. And, thankfully, he retained his gift for communicating pure emotion. When he signed a contract with the ANTI- record label in Los Angeles, joining a jaw-dropping roster of stars like Merle Haggard, gospel legend Mavis Staples and alt-rock queen Kate Bush, Whitmore’s output became even stronger. 2009’s “Animals in the Dark” is a raw, heavily political, sonically expansive album that has drawn (and deserves) comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s powerful, socially aware work. This album’s high-water mark is the track “Mutiny,” with its angry call to arms: “It’s a goddamn shame what’s going down/How we got to this I do not know/There’s a sick wind that is blowing ‘round/and the captain’s got to go.”

“If you’ve got burdens don’t carry them/just bury them in the ground/If you’re hurting don’t worry/I’ll try to be around.”

Last year’s album, “Field Songs,” marks Whitmore’s return to bucolic themes he covered with far less panache while starting out. Expressing the austere yet profound beauty of life in the country and his yearning for simpler times, Whitmore can now enrapture any audience, no matter how jaded or far removed from Lee County. (He recently completed a sweeping tour of Australia.) His voice—once derided as an attempt to mimic a larger talent—is his glory. Its cracks and crevices run deep, and you fall into them. Though typical singer-songwriter ballads get criticized for their nursery-room softness, Whitmore’s raspy cries bring a bullish weight to his words that many folk acts lack. There’s authority in his voice, a sense of genuine being, of hard-won wisdom, that lifts his farm-boy elegies to a universal plane.

Where “Animals in the Dark” was rife with disgust and threats of rebellion, “Field Songs” celebrates an honest day’s work, clean air and family ties. And, really, the album’s message makes it more startlingly political than its predecessor. While “Animals” railed against the machinations of Washington, “Field Songs” can be heard as a total rejection of our political system—as a message to Whitmore’s listeners urging them to join him in an agrarian utopia. Consider the album’s opening track, “Bury Your Burdens in the Ground.” No solution to modern complexities could possibly be more primal: “If you’ve got burdens don’t carry them/just bury them in the ground/If you’re hurting don’t worry/I’ll try to be around.”

A search for Whitmore on iTunes will find him listed under folk. But that’s only because “Iowan” isn’t a category. Whitmore’s music transcends conventional labeling. The songs are the man: most at peace in his home state, but willing to leave it to explain what being from the heartland means.

For the past year, Chad Taylor has written about music for Des Moines’ weekly tabloid, Cityview. His work has also appeared in dsm magazine, Kirkus Reviews and Seattle’s largest weekly newspaper, The Stranger.

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