Love of land, family
is framework for William Elliott
Whitmore's organic music
Elliott Whitmore says writing
a song is a lot like building
a house. And if his organic sound
is any indication of his skill
as a "chainsaw carpenter,"
it should come as no surprise
that he is building a cabin made
of old salvage barn lumber in
the woods of Southern Iowa.
"I want it to have a warm,
rustic look," he says. "I'm
not into too many new things."
At first glance, however, it
appears everything about Whitmore
is steeped in Americana, from
his banjo-driven, primordial music
to his love of family, land and
guns. And though a research of
his roots offers valuable insight
into his artistic process, it
is only half the story. For to
know Whitmore's music is to understand
not only where it comes from,
as much as where it's going.
"I guess that's why artists
are always pushing to create new
things," Whitmore says. "They
just want the world to see things
how they see things."
Whitmore's perspective has been
profoundly shaped by his birthplace.
The 27-year-old singer-songwriter
hails from a horse farm in Lee
County on a 150-acre plot of family-owned
land near the Mississippi River
where he learned to play music
from his grandfathers and parents.
His father, a farmer, died after
an extended bout with cancer 10
years ago and his mother died
from injuries sustained in a motorcycle
accident two years later. He is
especially close to his grandmother,
uncle and siblings who live nearby
on the family's estate, where
he is building his cabin. And
though his new home doesn't have
electricity, running water or
a telephone, yet, Whitmore finds
the solitude comforting. Each
day he takes a short walk through
the woods to collect his telephone
messages and mail at his uncle's
"I don't know what I'd
do without my kin," he says.
"We all enjoy our alone time
to contemplate, but we keep an
eye out for each other."
Over the years, Whitmore has
developed a spiritual understanding
of the natural setting in which
he was raised. The land, perhaps
more so than any list of influential
artists music writers have tried
to compare him with, is what most
informs his music.
"It's to me what the Black
Hills are to the Lakota Indians,"
he says. "It's my safe haven
and definitely where I get all
of my inspiration from."
Maybe that's why Whitmore's
music harkens back to a time when
popular music used to be more
regional and less of a hybrid
like it is now. Though the tattoo-clad,
banjo-wielding musician sings
about universal themes like love,
death and the plight of the common
man, he is interested in how a
person's environment informs their
art, hence his love of hip-hop
"I listen to hip-hop because
it gives me a window into a different
world and I'm a language junkie,"
he says. "A lot of those
guys are saying some amazing things."
Whitmore has traveled the world
on the strength of the things
he says, too. Each year he plays
more than 250 shows in venues
that range in musical style from
folk to punk music. He has released
two albums for Southern Records,
"Hymns for the Hopeless"
and "Ashes to Dust."
Both albums gained critical praise
for their stark imagery and emotional
depth. And though he is proud
to call himself an Iowan when
he's on tour, he says his music
isn't uniquely Iowa.
"I don't know a lot of
people who are doing what I'm
doing in Iowa, so I couldn't say
it's an Iowa sound," he says.
"It's a rural sound that
could be applied to any state."
Whitmore says his third album
due in May for Southern Records,
"Song of the Blackbird,"
will be similar in thematic and
sonic scope to that of his previous
efforts. Actually, its release
will complete a trilogy of sorts,
a series of albums informed by
the death of his parents.
"These three albums are
the story of my life and how people
come and go like the cycles of
nature," he says. "I
started writing songs after my
parents died to help me deal with
their deaths. This new album is
about getting the last of it off
my chest and letting the music
do what it is supposed to do,
which is to heal you. I'm ready
to do that and start writing about
The new album also reflects
Whitmore's deep-seeded views on
preserving the environment. And
he is not shy about sharing them
with anyone who will listen.
"I think people have forgotten
we're just human animals and no
more special than any organism,"
he says. "People have become
too self righteous. I think the
human race is getting out of control;
just what we're doing to this
world is crazy. We need to check
ourselves and remember we're no
more important than a blade of
Whether it is his stance on
the environment or songs about
relationships or death, Whitmore
hopes listeners find something
positive to take away from his
"I want them to pull something
out of it to help them in their
life," he says. "If
they can take one line or one
aspect of one song and let it
shine a flashlight in one corner
of their brain, that's a good
For Whitmore, such high hopes
means not resting on his laurels,
and pushing himself into uncharted
territory as a writer. Now that
he has built the foundation for
his music, he can determine its
height, weight and depth.
"You should never feel
like you're done with anything,"
he says. "Whether it's music
or a house, you always keep building."CV
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