Banjos and Body Piercings

William Elliott Whitmore brings old-school bluegrass to the punk underworld

"I try to rip off Ralph Stanley wherever I can," Whitmore admits. "Oops, I mean 'pay homage to Ralph Stanley.' But it's really just rippin' off."

Several reviewers name-check Johnny Cash, and though neither Whitmore's Tom Waits-like voice nor his music sounds remotely like the Man in Black, there's a decent case to be made there. It's in the lyrics -- Hymns doesn't sound like a Cash record, but you could imagine Cash recording or even writing some of the songs. Take these lines from Hymns, and see how easy it is to imagine them put to a Cash boom-chicka-boom and delivered in his patented quavery bass: "Those daisies, they sure look pretty / growing there near your stone / They remind me that life continues / and I'll never be alone." (Come to think of it, you could imagine those lines on a Greg Wood record, too.)

Like Cash, Whitmore is into elementals and has a firm grasp on a certain rural spirituality, if not traditional religion, and he also has a deft hand at painting pictures that are as dark as tar. Hymns, after all, is a concept record about the deaths of his parents.

"One of them died first and then the other died too, because that's just how it works. I lost them both at a young age, and so that's why the album's all about death and that's why the album is dedicated to people who will never hear it. It's for them and they'll never hear it. So it's about death -- losin' your loved one and then decidin' that you better go too 'cause that's the only way you'll ever be with them again. And hopefully by the end of the record you get the sense that -- and I'm not Christian or anything like that -- but that maybe one day our paths will cross again in another…realm or something like that. Life goes on, we're still here, so let's just do what we can, you know."

Also like Cash, Whitmore is a farm boy from the banks of the Mississippi. Growing up in the country under a big sky can get you thinking about all kinds of primordial philosophy. First questions and all that. Hymns is a typical first album in that it attempts to explain everything. Whitmore has it boiled down to a few pithy words now. "Shit dies, shit grows, and everything just goes in a big circle. People, too."

The Mississippi has given us Mark Twain and Johnny Cash, and boatloads of blues, jazz and rock and roll. And maybe one day people will be lumping Whitmore in there among the best of them. On coming of age near the Father of Waters, Whitmore waxes Asiatic. "It goes back to the ancient Chinese art of being in harmony with your surroundings -- the feng shui and running water and all that."

A 25-year-old neo-bluegrass banjo picker from Iowa talking about feng shui? And pronouncing it correctly? Who plays on the hardcore punk circuit? Like I said, the surprises never stop with this guy. And chances are that if you catch him at this underground gig, you'll have a story to surprise your grandkids with. They'll be shocked to know how cool you were once, a long time ago.

William Elliott Whitmore appears Monday, November 24, at the Austin House, 4905 Austin. Die Emperor Die is also on the bill.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Careers like Whitmore's make us think something like the '60s may again be upon us, at least in one small way. Back then, music fans could get into just about any kind of music, so long as it moved them. Radio wasn't so codified by genre -- you could hear Otis Redding followed by Moby Grape followed by Merle Haggard on a rock station. Live shows were the same -- at one rock festival you could see Chuck Berry, the MC5, Dr. John and Sun Ra. On November 22, the Continental Club will offer a three-band bill in that spirit. On it, there's the Medicine Show -- Houston's answer to Whitmore, in that they're punk kids who play bluegrass primarily for other punk bands. Then there's the innovative rockeros Chango Jackson, getting a rare chance to perform in front of an English-speaking audience. Completing this Age of Aquarius-style trio is Clouseaux, the all-but-indefinable tiki lounge exotica ensemble. If you're freaked out, man, this gig will freak you back in.

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