William Elliott Whitmore interview by Brian DeSpain
William Elliot Whitmore brought his banjo and guitar picking and porch stomping.to Off Broadway in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct 25. Below is a summary of the set followed by the interview:
Twenty-one songs composed Whitmore’s set which were mostly audience requests. He told the crowd, “A setlist is a safety net.” The twenty-second song was taken out to the patio, where Whitmore walked the tops of picnic tables and along the patio string light drumming up the audience on “Our Paths Will Cross Again.”
Take it On the Chin,” “Lift My Jug,” and “Civilizations” were followed by the stomper “Hell or High Water.” “My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me” followed as the first song in the set from the new album.
“Don’t Need It” was followed by another crowd stomper, “Midnight.”
“Lee County Flood,” “Song of the Blackbird,” and “One Man’s Shame” led into the second song performed from the new album, “MK Ultra Blues” (about CIA mind control experiments under the shadow of the Cold War).
“Chariot,” a song that expresses yearning for redemption, preceded another foot stomper, “Johnny Law,” written after a string of “minor offenses” by Whitmore.
A few covers were part of the set: “Don’t Pray on Me” (Bad Religion) was the first of three from his 2018 covers album Kilonova, followed by “Digging My Grave” and a song about a time Whitmore was working construction. He was driving a pickup truck with no windshield in February. For “Gravel Road” he said, “The body wasn’t attached to the frame. The weight kept it on. Faith kept it on. On a gravel road with a ripple, it would shift over a little and I’d have drive over the ripples to shift [the truck body] back over.”
“Solar Flare” (having no worry for a possible apocalypse), the third represented from his most recent album, and “Pine Box” about grieving for a love who has died, were followed by a Bill Withers cover, “Ain’t No Sunshine” from Kilonova.
The set rounded out with “Fear of Trains” (Magnetic Fields) and “Old Devils” (joining “Hell or High Water” and “Johnny Law” from 2009’s Animals in the Dark).
American Highways: A lot of the songs seem to be family wisdom shared at the kitchen table, or perhaps the front porch. This continues with your current album I’m With You. What source do you draw upon for this writing approach?
WIlliam Elliott Whitmore: The first few albums which started coming out in 2003, I was dealing with the passing of my parents in my teens. So a lot of that was processing death, what that means, what are we and where do I come from? I’m always trying to process the knowledge my parents were passing on to me as a kid. All of a sudden they’re gone. As a kid you’re not always listening the way you should (“Yeah, whatever.”) and then later, “Oh, they’re gone now, I should have actually listened to what they were saying.”
When you’re older you start to realize what your folks were saying maybe had some merit.
I wish I could have a beer with my Dad now, and go, “What was it like?” but I can’t. I’m always processing things they’ve said to me a long time ago. So I’m always writing about that. But that was a lot of the early albums.
AH: But it’s still a theme now…
WEW: Yes, knowledge that gets passed on by your folks, grandparents, elders, aunts, uncles – I’m always trying to process and then when they pass on, I always think, “That knowledge they gave to me, that’s how they live on.” You can make songs out of that and pass on that knowledge.
AH: You’ve previously mentioned a grandparent from the Missouri Ozarks as an influence to your musical style. How so?
WEW: My paternal grandfather was a banjo and guitar picker. That is who I looked up to growing up to start playing. We’d go over to his house. There was always a banjo and guitar sitting in the corner and I was fascinated by them just as objects. But when he would play them, there was another layer, “Oh, they make this sound, too, that’s really beautiful.” So when I got old enough, I started trying to make cords on the guitar too and he would occasionally let me play his instruments which were precious to him. After he passed away, they were handed down to me. I was 17- or 18-years-old. And it was because of him that I picked up those instruments and learned the cords because I inherited records from him as well. He had a bunch of Ozark Mountain records, like standards. He gave me the playbook for what would be my life after that. I was already so interested in it and when he passed away, he gave me everything I needed. He didn’t know it because he was gone. So I had the records, I had the instruments, so, “I love this music. I love everything about it. I want to emulate this.” From there I learned about Appalachian music. Specifically, Ozark Mountain music that he passed on spoke to me. It set me on a path.
AH: So with this hills music, or what I call Ozark roots music, since you have Mark Bilyeu and Cindy Woolf [as The Creek Rocks] as show openers, they live in the Missouri Ozarks and you compliment each other, how did you meet?
WEW: I know Mark through a band called Big Smith. He is cousins with a guy that’s from my hometown he is in a band called Red Meat. So they’re a honky tonk country band.
AH: Big Smith performs a Red Meat cover….
WEW: “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan”
AH: And I’m a big Ha Ha Tonka fan and they do a cover of that song at their shows.
WEW: They [Ha Ha Tonka] are a great band.
So more than 20 years ago, my cousins, who are in Red Meat, do this great California-style, Buck Owens honky tonk music, introduced us to Scott’s cousins [in Missouri] called Big Smith. This was like 1999 or 2000, and Big Smith quickly became a big favorite in my life. So I’ve known Mark a long time. And later Mark started playing music with Cindy so that’s how I know Creek Rocks. I’m such a fan of what they do.
AH: It’s just been one year since I’m With You was released. In what ways did you adapt during this prolonged touring lockdown?
WEW: Right when the pandemic kicked off in March 2020, I had a baby born. So my wife and I saved up. So when the pandemic happened, I was forced to take time off. I was able to survive because we had some savings. I was able to spend some time with my newborn daughter. I’ve always enjoyed woodworking so I was carving spoons and making boxes as a way of having a hobby and raising a kid. I’m always writing song and did a few online shows.
AH: The closing song on I’m With You is “Black Iowa Dirt”. Does farm life, being connected to the land, provide grounding for you?
WEW: I was born and raised on a farm. It was never a large commercial farm the way they are now. When I was growing up, it would barely scrape by as even a small farm. But my folks did it and it was so important to us that we do that. We were so involved in nature and the land and planting crops. The cycles of birth and death, planting in the Spring, harvesting in the Fall – that all had to do with cycles. Quickly in my mind, “That’s how life works, there’s birth and there’s death.” That’s why it’s always been a connection to me. My folks died in my teens so I thought, “But that’s okay, because it’s a cycle and we’re all going to die and that’s okay.”
And now my wife and daughter live on that same farm [in Iowa] where I will die.
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