A man armed only with a banjo and a bass drum can be a formidable force, especially if his name is William Elliott Whitmore. On the new Anti- Records album FIELD SONGS, Whitmore uses this two-instrument attack to go straight to the source, leaving no doubt where he comes from. William comes from the land, growing up on a farm in Lee County, Iowa, at the southeastern tip of the state, between the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. "It's some of the most fertile land in the world," Whitmore proudly proclaims. Still living on the same farm today, Whitmore has truly taken the time to discover where his center lies. From that he will not be moved. With his powerful voice and honest approach he makes his claim, and when the eight tracks that make up FIELD SONGS end there is no doubt this is someone who will be heard.
Where he comes from says a lot about where William Elliott Whitmore is going. Whitmore's father played the guitar and his mother the accordion; both grandparents were also musicians, and he never had to go far to discover great new music. "My parents' record collection was amazing and inspiring," Whitmore remembers. "It included everything from the country music of Charlie Pride and Willie Nelson to the soulful music of Ray Charles and Leon Russell. We used to listen to them and sing along loudly." Around 15 or 16 when his hands finally got big enough to go around the guitar neck he started strumming some chords and writing lyrics. He hasn't looked back since.
Still, there was hard work to be done while the music settled inside him. Carpentry, shoveling horse manure, working on a farm where they raised wild birds: it filled Whitmore's days until he found himself living in Iowa City and watching other professional musicians ply their trade. After attending a few local punk rock and hardcore shows Whitmore quickly grew interested in the music, lifestyle and DIY culture that surrounded this scene. It wasn't long before he would hit the road with a friend's hardcore band, playing his folk songs in between the band's sets. "It was just weird enough to work," he laughs now. "I found out how to be an entertainer and get the audience's attention. It taught me a lot."
The new century was beginning and the Iowan saw a large musical playing field opening in front of him. Soon the Chicago-based Southern Records label offered Whitmore a three-album deal. Extensive touring ensued as he left an undeniable mark on any audience he could get in front of. As word spread, Whitmore developed many friends in high places, sharing the stage with such diverse acts as The Pogues, Clutch, Murder By Death and Converge to name a few. His willingness to take his show to any playing field proved to be invaluable as he turned strangers into diehards with every performance.
Eventually the noise that Whitmore was making found its way to Anti- Records' Andy Kaulkin, who instantly knew he wanted the artist on his label. "I got a call on the farm from Andy," Whitmore says. "I don't know how he found me; I'm not even listed in information. I was out chopping wood and my uncle said I had a call from a record company. Anti- plucked me out of the cornfield." His first Anti- Records album, ANIMALS IN THE DARK," was released in 2009 and met critical acclaim. Rooted in bluegrass, blues and folk protest music, there was an instant recognition that a new voice had arrived to the masses. The stripped-down sound of the songs was right in sync with William Elliott Whitmore's view of the world and what needed to be said. Further touring with City and Color, Frank Turner and Chris Cornell provided a bigger platform to gain attention.
It also left open the door to the starker and striking world of FIELD SONGS, something the singer felt he had to do. "FIELD SONGS is a record that's meant to be listened to all the way through," he says. "It's really one song, cut into eight parts that hopefully places the listener on the front porch with me. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a working day."
It's a record that honors the long tradition of folk music, while allowing Whitmore's punk, rock, blues and soul influences to shine through. The opening track, "Bury Your Burdens in the Ground," immediately takes the listener into the feeling of being alone on the land, and the realization that the past can not be changed, so rather than dwell on your mistakes, let go of your regrets. It also stakes out the singer's claim to make music on his own terms. The passion and power in his voice is one that can be felt at long distances, and is unmistakably Whitmore's own.
The album's title song stands as the anthem of the small farmer, and how it is a craft to be cherished and nurtured no matter how tough the economics make it. The dedication it takes is mirrored in the music, and is followed by "Let's Do Something Impossible," where there is a sense of belief that all things can be accomplished. It is like the subtitle of FIELD SONGS, and a thought the singer drives home. Unrelenting hope runs deep on this album and Whitmore comes by it honestly, having stood by his land and his unique music with equal love. "If I Can Get There from Here" widens the view of modern life's challenges, emphasizing the importance of seeing things through other people's eyes. Naturally, "Not Feeling Any Pain" takes the album home, and offers a view of the working world and life itself as a continual stream of renewal no matter how hard it may seem at the times.
William Elliott Whitmore has been back and forth across the United States and to cities around the world. His music grows, but it also reminds him that he started in Lee County, Iowa years ago. "I'm a son of the soil," he says proudly. "You learn you're at the mercy of things you can't control. You're in the hands of the spirit. And that's a good thing to know when you keep moving ahead."