“I’m actually walking around in my garden right now,” says William Elliott Whitmore, an adept guitarist and banjo player, from his Iowa farm when reached by phone. “I like planting seeds and watching things grow. That’s what I enjoy writing about most,” he continues in a slight accent, connecting his rural surroundings to music the singer’s issued over the last eight years. “A lot of people don’t know much about Iowa, so I let ’em know what it might be like to be here. I actually just started growing my own hops to make beer. That’s been a cool horticultural experiment.”
Wrapping himself in a rural tapestry encompassing huge swaths of the American landscape but making sure to reference citified banjo heroes like Daniel Higgs makes Whitmore a figure capable of transcending expectations. “Everything Gets Gone,” from the newly released “Field Songs,” ties bucolic concerns of rusted, rotting buildings into a universal childhood and its memories. A barren guitar sounds out just a few chords, allowing the singer’s narration of his earliest surroundings to sit atop its musical accompaniment. Instead of folk, however, Whitmore’s voice could just as easily be attached to some arena-rock band, which accounts for Chris Cornell taking the Midwesterner out on tour as an opening act during this past spring.
As much as Whitmore’s tattooed visage and choice of touring partners makes his love of punk and alternative music apparent, it’s lesser-known folk players, the utterly forgotten ones, who he admires most. “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott isn’t exactly a household name,” he begins. “We’re on the same record label now, so I keep thinking I’m gonna run into him at a Christmas party,” Whitmore jokes. “He has a style that’s totally his own, and I’ve always looked up to him. He’s sort of a lost figure.”
Like Ramblin’ Jack, Whitmore roams the country with acoustic instruments as his only companion. Despite the singer’s well-connected label, he still chooses to go about it all in a humble manner. “I drive myself around in a little mini-van. Even that’s leagues better than what I used to do, which was drive around in a crummy old car and try to sleep in the back seat,” he remembers. Such accommodations don’t seem tenable, but since Ramblin’ Jack’s pretty deep into his senior years and still on the road, Whitmore doesn’t see any reason to change the mode in which he trucks around his folksy tunes.
“The key’s just to never stop, like a shark movin’ through the water. You don’t stop, you just keep on moving forward,” Whitmore says. “If I could be eighty years old and still playin’ music, just able to get my fingers around the neck of a guitar, and still have enough wind in my lungs to sing, I’d feel real fortunate.”
Impending work on the road and in the studio isn’t burdensome, it’s Whitmore’s version of freedom. 2009’s “Animals in the Dark” expanded the singer’s approach to recording as it counted a number of performers Whitmore handpicked for inclusion, contrasting with his other, stark albums.
“It was people I know and trust who have good ideas themselves,” Whitmore says of the process. “I couldn’t imagine playing with studio musicians who I don’t really know.” His angle on music-making extends to the engineer he’s made use of over the entirety of his career. “Luke Tweedy’s my cousin,” he says of the man tagged with production credits on each of his records. “We actually built that studio in Iowa City; it’s a place I feel real comfortable in.”
A relaxed atmosphere is necessary for any creative endeavor. But so is retaining a sense of self. Insinuating vague political concerns into his records brings Whitmore precariously close to espousing dogma amidst the wealth of stories he tells. Avoiding the pratfall of overt message songs, while properly representing himself as an artist and individual, allows the Iowa native a universality uncommon in most contemporary music.
“No one likes being preached to,” Whitmore begins. “I have my opinion on some things, but really, I just try to touch on it to get it off my chest. It’s my tiny soapbox. I could never be as good a protest singer as Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. This new record, I bring it back to what I know best—farm living, working on the farm.”
July 29 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 North Lincoln, (773)525-2508, 9pm. $15.