Use What You Got - William Elliott Whitmore: Friday, August 24, 7:30 p.m. Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 22 August 2007 02:45

William Elliott Whitmore If you've ever heard William Elliott Whitmore's singing - or read reviews of his work, which typically note that he has the weathered pipes of someone at least twice his age - you might snicker at this statement from the singer-songwriter: "I always wished I could sing like Frank Sinatra, or Morrissey, or fucking Dean Martin - those real crooner guys," he said in a phone interview this week.

Earthbound boys want to leap like Michael Jordan used to, of course, but Whitmore's words play like Shaquille O'Neal complaining about his vertical leap: They ignore obvious talent in other areas.

But Whitmore is likely being honestly modest. "I've never been that great of a singer, but I feel like if I can kind of hone it a little bit and get a little better each time, then I'll have something," he said. "I feel like with the records, I've started to find my voice a little bit more.

"I figure: Use what you got."

That voice might not be pretty, but it has woodsy soul, experience, and authenticity that better singers can only dream of. The All Music Guide said his Hymns for the Hopeless features "bleak and death-haunted tales [that] are full of the kind of regrets that only a long life full of loss and struggle can validate."

His three sparse recordings on the Southern label - Hymns for the Hopeless, Ashes to Dust, and Song of the Blackbird - are intensely personal, the products of his parents' deaths.

His father died when Whitmore was 16, and his mother when he was 19. Whitmore has been writing songs in earnest in the 11 years since his mother's death.

"I never had anything to say before that," he said. Although he grew up in a musical household - his mother played accordion - "I never thought about writing my own songs." After his parents passed, though, "all of a sudden I had something to say. I had a lot to say."

Initially, Whitmore said, he resisted performing the songs live. He had difficulty "reconciling being a songwriter with being an entertainer. For a long time, I ... just want to write songs and record."

It's little wonder, because performing songs about unhealed wounds is "kind of re-living those things every night," Whitmore said.

But the recorded trilogy proved therapeutic, he said: "I've sort of purged the demons." And he's grown to like public performance, enjoying the community of it and the feedback of the audience.

William Elliott Whitmore Whitmore said he's trying to expand his songwriting and production on his next endeavor - which he's begun recording for the Anti-/Epitaph label, home of kindred spirit Tom Waits. "I definitely want to challenge people with this new record, and try not to make the same old thing over again," he said. "It's still going to be me, and it's still going to be pretty raw."

While his earlier albums were drawn from personal experience, Whitmore said he's begun to look past himself. "I've been kind of writing more outwardly," he said. "I feel like a pretty happy guy again, so I've been sort of writing more about the world in general."

And he's trying different ways of writing. "Not all the songs necessarily have a story that has a beginning, middle, and end," he said. "Some of them have these bursts of language, almost more of like in a field-hymn type of way ... . It's less a narrative than it is a statement."

He also said that the songs will not be directly political in the vein of Woody Guthrie, but will instead address politics and current events in a poetic way.

The album is being recorded in his cousin's garage studio in Iowa City, which affords Whitmore luxuries he didn't have with proper studios on his other recordings. Those were knocked out in a few days each. "I'll have more time to work on things, and find good banjo tones, and good guitar tones, and do some more experimental things," he said.

Don't expect anything radically different, though. A typical Whitmore song features only that voice accompanied by banjo or guitar, and that's often plenty. Whitmore's playing with instrumentation, he said, but he's likely to retain his signature sound.

He still lives on his family's farm near Keokuk, Iowa, and he's converted a corn crib into a cabin. An extension cord connected to a barn gives him a few bulbs of light and a radio, but otherwise he lives without electricity.

That preference for the primitive is matched by a love of skateboarding and punk-rock culture.

Imagine this scene: "Before I could even drive, ... I would drive the tractor ... into town [Montrose, Iowa] ... just about like 500 people or something, but they had pavement. So that was the nearest place from the farm that I could go and actually ride a skateboard."

That rural and urban mix might sound contradictory, but "to me it's just kind of two sides of one coin," Whitmore said.

He learned about punk from skating magazines, and he heard in it "the blues and country that I was listening to growing up": three chords and a need to say something.

He played in a punk band as a teenager but "I realized a long time ago that I can't do it. ... It ain't quite me."

Yet there's still plenty of punk in the tattooed farm boy with a damaged soul.

"I try to kind of blend those two worlds," he said. "I try to play the banjo in a way that Brett Gurewitz from Bad Religion would play his guitar."


To listen to the Reader interview with William Elliott Whitmore, visit (

blog comments powered by Disqus