William Elliott Whitmore grew up in Lee County, Iowa, on a 160-acre farm in the southeast corner of the state, miles from the nearest town. The property has been handed down since Whitmore's Irish great-great-great-grandfather. The singer-songwriter lives on the property today behind the farmhouse, in a one-room stand-alone that he built with his own hands, with wood reclaimed from old half-burnt and dilapidated barns.
Like his lifestyle, Whitmore's music is rooted firmly in the past. His voice is as weathered as an old Midwestern colonial — boards warping, shingles askew, paint chipped and peeling. His music, fueled by a spare acoustic guitar and a kick-drum thump, lopes like a horse-drawn Amish cart clomping along a dusty back road. But he's not entirely mired in the old days. The duality of farm life and road living is integral to his identity and well-being. "I couldn't do either one all the time," Whitmore says, walking through some of the woods near his home. Even his concessions to modernity are well-aged: He's talking on a six-year-old flip phone.
"It's an interesting juxtaposition between those two worlds, and I think most people have something like that in their life," he says. "Going out, touring Europe, seeing what there is to see out there and meeting new folks, then coming back home to the quiet of the farm."
Whitmore comes from a family of musicians and iconoclasts who also cherished the land. His grandfather would "go racing his Harley down Main Street standing on the seat." Whitmore grew up with music and singing. When puberty hit, it brought a bountiful gift: a rich baritone that he could wield with a gospel-folk soul.
"It happened in the course of like a week," he recalls. "I always knew that I was never going to be a guitar virtuoso. But I could sing all right. That's always been the big tool in my toolbox. I always looked up to those guys who could do those interesting vocal tricks, like James Carr, Ray Charles — those old soul guys."
Much as he loved roots and soul music, Whitmore was equally drawn to punk rock. As a teen, Whitmore read the skateboard magazine Thrasher and would ride his tractor to town in his baggy pants in search of pavement. When his parents died suddenly, he left the farm to pursue music. He played basement shows, opened for punk bands, and eventually finished an autobiographical three-album cycle about life and loss.
"I was taught early on that death isn't bad but something that's natural. So I was writing a lot about those kinds of themes," he says. "It was basically how I dealt with all that stuff instead of jumping off a bridge. I used music for what it's good for, the healing power of creative expression."
When he finished those albums, Whitmore initially wondered if he had anything left to say. He found that he did. He signed to Anti- records and penned Animals in the Dark, which explored a full-band sound for the first time while delving into Dubya-inspired political allegory akin to Orwell's Animal Farm.
Whitmore has gone the other direction on his latest, Field Songs, which is a return of sorts to his roots. It's as austere sonically as anything he has done — somewhat suggestive of an actual field recording — and tells the stories of people of the land, perspectives and values that transcend time and place.
"It's a record I've been wanting to make for a long time. It kind of comes from that place of being one with where you're at, no matter where you're at," Whitmore explains. "It's a cool thing to think how insignificant we really are but, you know, conversely how meaningful our lives can be. It's just this weird paradox that your life is both really important and not important at all. It's a cool realization that makes going through the world more of a fun game."