Banjos and Body Piercings
"Texas rules. I always have a good time down there. I wish I was there right now."
So says 25-year-old singer-songwriter, banjo player/guitarist William Elliott Whitmore. And what's more, he's probably telling the truth. When you're in a phone booth in Minneapolis and it's 33 degrees, you really do wish you were in Texas, where November has been freakishly warm.
Not that Whitmore is unaccustomed to cold weather. For Whitmore, home is in and around Montrose. Not the one here -- the one in Iowa, the Lee County seat, across the Mississippi from Illinois and a few miles north of Missouri. Whitmore calls himself a hillbilly, and the idea of an Iowa hillbilly seems strange. Where are the hills for all the billies?
In Lee County, he says. "A lot of Iowa is flat, but where I'm from is really hilly. It reminds me of the Shire or somethin' -- it's really beautiful. I'm much more influenced by my surroundings than I am by any kind of music. Hell, I listen to more hip-hop than I do country these days."
That's just one of several shocks you get with this guy -- one of the most talented and compelling under-30 roots musicians in America today. I got a Whitmore demo CD back in March, sometime around South By Southwest, and it was the biggest surprise of the whole event. You hear his voice -- a Fighting Cock- and Camel-shorty-stained beast of an instrument -- and banjo playing that sounds like it slipped through a crevice in time from the 1930s, and you imagine a tattooed 50-year-old ex-con sitting on a trailer porch on some backwoods West Virginia hilltop. A quick Internet search turns up the fact that Whitmore is half that age, and his songs name-check not the Blue Ridge Mountains but weird little Iowa villages. He does have a bunch of tats, though.
Then there's the fact that he wrote many of the excellent songs on that demo when he was still in his teens. And also that hardly anybody knows about him right now -- his gig here is at the Austin House, a DIY underground punk venue in the Museum District.
That's right -- this banjo picker's plucking at a punk place. Though the No Depression crowd would definitely dig Whitmore, he's not especially interested in going that route, much less through mainstream Nashville channels. Besides, the punk stuff comes to him naturally. After the country music his parents gave him, and the hip-hop of N.W.A. and Public Enemy that his siblings dug, the punk of bands like Minor Threat was his third love.
"Around age 14 I started reading Thrasher magazine and skateboarding and stuff. When you're livin' in a cornfield -- I know a lot of Midwestern hillbilly kids say this -- but I had no window to the outside world and Thrasher magazine was it. So I started getting into punk, but man, I love country music and hillbilly music too, and I thought, man, if I'm ever gonna do anything in this biz it'll be through the punk scene, not the country scene."
Who could blame him? Country's losing its hold on the youth, and who wants to be a museum piece for a bunch of old folks, a nice young man with an old soul and a big voice? Not Whitmore. "The kids are hungrier -- and it is kids," he says. "If you go to a country place, it's middle-age folks and that's awesome and I love it -- I've played tons of old folks' homes and churches -- but the fire isn't there anymore and they're not hungry anymore. I'd so much rather play in front of kids. These days kids like anything and everything, and it's a great feeling turnin' them on to somethin' new, because it was just the opposite for me. Bein' a hillbilly and seein' a punk band for the first time just changed everything, so I'd like to bring that to them -- just the opposite."
And so far, the kids have dug it. It never ceases to surprise Whitmore. "Opening up for hardcore bands, I always think that they're gonna throw rocks at me or my banjo, but everywhere I've been the punks have been warm and receptive."
And so far so have the critics, even on über-hip Web sites like Pitchfork.com, where the writers don't really have a clue what he's doing but like him anyway. Pitchfork's scribe dwelt on how "authentic" Whitmore was in comparison to the (shudder) Miami-based folkies in Iron and Wine, and rated Whitmore's debut album, Hymns for the Hopeless, "very good" while completely mislabeling it as neo-blues that borrows heavily from "Delta" sources such as Leadbelly and Doc Watson. Well, Leadbelly was from the Texas-Louisiana border, played a 12-string guitar instead of a banjo, and had a voice that was clear instead of gravelly and was pitched about an octave higher than Whitmore's, but other than that I guess you could say they had a lot in common. Watson's a decent comparison, though he's from nowhere near a delta of any sort, and old-time mountain musicians Ralph Stanley and the Louvin Brothers are much better sounds-likes anyway.
"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.
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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