By Melissa Fossum
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By New Times
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It's impossible to mention William Elliott Whitmore without talking about his voice. Its deep, weathered ache sounds as though it was rescued from a well four score ago, only to wander the Earth in muddy boots with a banjo strapped to its back. Raised on gospel and schooled in the blues, his limber basso wends through dark emotional alleys like a spiritualist seeking to enlighten. Indeed, the first soul it saved was Whitmore's own.
Music is how he dealt with the tragic loss of his parents and family in his late teens, leaving him the farm he grew up on, and where he still lives today. It was his therapy and a story that span his first three albums — 2003's Hymns for the Hopeless, 2005's Ashes to Dust, and 2006's Song of the Blackbird — austere releases accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar or banjo and Whitmore's resounding anguish.
"I had been through a lot of loss, a lot of deaths in the family, and a lot of tumultuous times. So a lot of the writing themes were from that," Whitmore says from his isolated Iowa farm. "So I came up with this idea to have this story in three movements. It was basically how I dealt with all that stuff instead of jumping off a bridge."
Having finished the trilogy, Whitmore wanted to go back to the farm, plant a garden, and return to carpentry. "I thought, 'Okay, I put my little musical fingerprint on the world and said my little bit. Now I can go back to doing what I was doing,'" he says. But he soon discovered music wasn't done with him. He still had more to say. "I've always been interested in politics and, even broader than that, human nature and how we treat each other."
The result was Animals in the Dark, a bristling album informed by politics and Whitmore's time-honoring perspective. He heralds the sacrifices of his forefathers, noting how "hard times made us" ("Hard Times"), lambastes those that "bring devastation and call it diplomacy" ("Who Stole the Soul"), and cribs from "The Roof Is on Fire" during the album-opening protest cry of "Mutiny." Though fueled by animus toward our leaders ("Old Devils") and frustration about our plight, there are moments of hope and redemption.
"There's evil monsters in the world. To beat them, what we have to do is create beauty. I meant for it to be sort of uplifting as well," he says, explaining his philosophy. "Everything has its own energy, and realizing that I'm no more important than any blade of grass or squirrel in the tree, and understanding that from an early age. It's pretty humbling and I think a lot of people need to understand that — we're here, and we play our little part. That's the closest thing I had to religion."
Life has come full-circle for Whitmore, who discovered punk rock reading Thrasher magazine as a tween and road a tractor to town to find pavement on which he could ride his skateboard. Now, he's signed to Epitaph imprint Anti-, the label of one of his heroes.
"I used to laugh to myself that these people in bands have no idea this kid in a cornfield has a little player listening to Bad Religion and the Minutemen and no idea how they were affecting me so much," Whitmore says. "All these years later, being involved with this label is an honor."
There's probably a kid somewhere in a Brooklyn tenement dreaming about the soil, nature, and its timeworn truths.