Photo: David Black

Simply put, William Elliott Whitmore is a modern day troubadour.

Though he’s only 33, his songs convey the sincerity and poetic lyricism of a man who’s seen and been through it all. Born and raised in the farmlands of Iowa, Mr. Whitmore’s blend of traditional folk and blues evokes images of a vast and beautiful quiet American landscape and the simple life of living in the country.

Of course, as his lyrics suggest, he has a formidable wisdom and charisma about him that has you soaking up and taking heed to every word he belts through his gravelly, yet soulful vocals.

His latest album, Field Songs, is a bit of a departure from the politically charged and grandiose last album, Animals in the Dark. Its minimal style and picaresque lyrics are brilliant enough in its own right, yet with Field Songs, Whitmore demonstrates that he’s truly come into his own as a musician.

As a folk/blues artist with roots in the hardcore punk community, Whitmore has had a lot to endure musically. Yet, the punk community has embraced William Elliott Whitmore with open arms, and he’s become an icon.

On Sunday, Whitmore stopped by The Red Palace in Washington, D.C. as part of a national tour supporting his new album.

Armed with merely his banjo and an acoustic guitar, he put on a remarkable 2-hour show that included many songs off of his new album as well as stirring covers of Bad Religion’s “Don’t Pray on Me” and Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, as well as fan favorites like “Old Devils”, “One’ Man’s Shame”, “Johnny Law”, and “Hell or High Water”.

Before the show, William was kind of enough to sit down with me and discuss his new album, the simple pleasures of farm life vs. life as a touring musician, and the bittersweet joy of whiskey (all while we shared a bottle of Jack Daniel’s).

Meets Obsession: Let’s talk about your new album “Field Songs”, lyrically it’s a bit of a departure from the politically charged nature of your last album “Animals in the Dark”, and more in the style of your first 3 albums, can you talk a little about the influence of this album?

William Elliott Whitmore: The influence for the record was my surroundings—the environment in which I live, the farm I grew up on, that I still live on. It’s the record that I’ve been wanting to make for a really long time: I’ve been wanting to make a record with no other instruments, very stripped down, and I just wanted the songs to stand on their own. This is kind of the result of all that. It’s very much just being influenced by a lifetime of working on a farm, and just sort of approaching music the same way I’d approach farm work.

MO: What was the recording process for this album like? It’s certainly more bare and minimal than “Animals in the Dark”, reminiscent of your earlier albums.

Whitmore: I record in a studio that I built with my cousin in Iowa, so it’s a place I feel very comfortable in. We built it before we recorded the last record, “Animals in the Dark”. I used to do carpentry for a living, and my cousin knows all about gear, recording and everything, so we built this studio together and it’s a very comfortable place to be. So, over the course of a few months, we made this record. I used to make records years ago in like, a week. I would just go in [to the studio], and in five days, whatever I had was what I had [for the record], and that was before I had my own studio. There’s a charm to that approach, but it’s really nice to have the time. You’ll hear a lot of artists say that and I’ve read a lot of interviews where people say that same thing, but having the time to record something, listen to it and make sure it’s right, is a great thing. It’s very stripped down, but we went at it pretty meticulously. I own lots of guitars and my cousin has lots of microphones, so we’d record a song with a certain guitar, and then I’d think “maybe I’ll record it with the electric instead of the acoustic” and just try different things like that because we had the time. So it’s very stripped down but it takes a lot to make something sound so simple. Like I said, I just wanted the songs to stand on their own and not embellish them at all. It was a very unique experience doing it like that. I’ve never made a record like that, I’ve always had friends come in and add stuff, and that’s fun, that’s a lot of fun doing that, but I wanted this one to be more stark.

Folk, Blues and Whiskey: An Interview with Musician William Elliott Whitmore

Photo: David Black

Whitmore: It’s different every time, it’s different every song. They kind of come, they kind of present themselves to me in different ways, but it usually starts with the lyrics. I know the feeling I want to project, I know what kind of experience I want to put forth, so then it’s a matter of trying to put it in a poetic way, which is a tricky thing and I’m still learning how to do that.

Meets Obsession: I’d say you’re more than on the right track, at least from this fan’s perspective.

Whitmore: [Laughs] Thank you. You take all those things and you want to put forth a certain sentiment, but you want to make it have a melody and you want to make it sound pleasing to the listener. So I just sort of approach it like that and I work on them every day.

Like I said, I approach music the same way I would approach any kind of farm work or anything, and that’s just like going into it bad or good, whatever happens, happens, and I just kind of chisel it down til it’s something that I think could go on a record. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I strive to make it work and put forth a sentiment that I think people will understand.

Meets Obsession: It’s clear from your songs that you’re very connected to your home and life on the farm. As a touring musician, how do you cope with being away from home for long periods of time?

Whitmore: A long time ago I had to make the decision between being a farmer full-time and being a musician full-time, and I chose to go on tour and be a musician. That meant that the farm couldn’t operate the same way that it used to. So my uncle still lives there and my grandma still lives there and so they kind of hold down the fort while I’m gone. But we don’t plant row crops anymore, or anything like that. It’s a pretty small farm, it’s only 160 acres, which is a lot of land, but really for farm terms, that’s nothing. But to me it’s the whole world, that 160 acres is the whole universe to me. So what I do is, I rent out the fields that can be farmed to some neighbors down the road, and they farm different plots around where we live.

We rent it out to them and they do corn, soy beans and other stuff. They’re pretty small-time farmers, they’re just some good neighbors that we trust. But when I’m home, I’m repairing fences and cutting firewood and I have my own subsistence garden that I take care of, just to eat from. So my uncle and my girlfriend and my grandma, they kind of help take care of all that when I’m gone.  But I always miss it when I’m on tour, for sure.

Meets Obsession: I know that you are a very crafty, hands-on type of guy. You’ve built your own cabin, brewed your own beer, maintain a farm. What other sort of hobbies are you into?

Whitmore: I definitely enjoy building things. I used to do carpentry for a living, and out of all the jobs I’ve had, besides farming, carpentry was one of my favorites. I can’t do like real fancy furniture or anything like that yet, I strive to learn things like that. I’m what they call a chainsaw carpenter, but I can definitely make something square and level. I built the house I live in, it took me a few years in between tours and everything, but I enjoy building things. My family’s a motorcycle family as well. My grandpa came back from the war and was into his Harley’s and into his motorcycle clubs, not a gang, but literally a motorcycle club where they would work on bikes and do hill climbs, things like that. So I’ve got several motorcycles and I enjoy tinkering with those a lot and working on those. So yeah, I definitely enjoy making things.

Meets Obsession: I’ve read in one of your blog posts on your website that you’ve experimented in brewing your own beer. I’ve dabbled in beer brewing as well, it’s a fun experiment, what’s your favorite type of beer to brew, or beer in general?

Whitmore: My favorite type of beer is whatevers right in front of me [laughs]. But as far as making beer, there’s a lot of them that I like to make, but I think my favorite is what they call an Imperial Pale Ale. Pale Ales [are] one of my favorite beers, I like a real hoppy flavor. It’s different then an India Pale Ale, it’s just a little different of a recipe, but I enjoy real hoppy brews. I have a garden where I just started trying to grow my own hops to brew beer with. This is my first year doing that, and I haven’t seen them in a few weeks because I’ve been on the road, but I guess they look pretty good. So I’m looking forward to making beer with stuff I actually grew.

Meets Obsession: I’m sure it’s going to be much better than those cheap ‘brew at home’ beer kits that you can get just about anywhere

Whitmore: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve done lots of those, and its fun but the results aren’t as rewarding.

Meets Obsession: What about whiskey, I know you’re a whiskey man as well, what kind is your favorite?

Whitmore: I’m normally not into rye whiskey, but lately, I’ve been into this rye from Iowa called Templeton Rye. It’s a real, real good whiskey. There’s also another one made in Iowa called Cedar Ridge—that’s a real good one. But in general, I do just like whiskey—I like it a little too much.

Meets Obsession: Yeah, I’m the same way. It can be your worst best friend

Whitmore: It’s an amazing elixir, and it’s gotten me in a lot of trouble [laughs], but it’s made me happy too.

Meets Obsession: As a blues/folk artist with a strong fan-base in the hardcore punk community, do you ever feel out of place? Do you have any interesting stories touring with bands like Converge or Modern Life is War? I imagine that opening a show with bands like that would be quite an experience.

Whitmore: It’s taken a lot of years, but I think people are finally used to it.

In the beginning it was kind of hard. I did a lot of shows, months worth of shows with this band Clutch, who are from around here, and they’re great, really good guys, and they took a chance and brought me on the road opening up for them.

I thought the fans were going to eat me alive, I just didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t like that at all, people were so respectful and I think that people respect a band like Converge or Clutch, and their fans respect them enough to know that they’re active in who they choose to bring along with them. So I think I had the seal of approval just because I was there. People were very kind, especially with a band like Clutch.

I feel like our music is rooted in the same place, kind of like just blue collar work songs, kind of blues based. Mine is more folk or country, but theirs is just like amplified blues basically, it’s kind of rooted in the same thing. I don’t think it’s too far of a step for their fans, and I think people like seeing something different, people are just more intrigued with something different.

But that Converge and Modern Life is War tour, Modern Life is War are from Iowa also, they’re some of our proud local sons so people were really respectful [of me]. I was expecting the worst, but it was really fun.