William Elliott Whitmore

Empty Bottle, 2/17

Can white men sing the blues? The answer to that depends on what you think the blues are really about. I believe that everybody can sing the blues, at least in theory–because everybody is going to die. What gets me about gritty prewar blues and scratchy old-timey mountain music isn’t the high body count in the songs; it’s the coffin-lid scrape of a slide across strings, the ubiquitous references to meeting the departed once again on some farther shore. At bottom those stories aren’t about someone else’s death–they’re about your own.

That’s probably why blues and hillbilly music sound best as unfiltered and unprocessed as possible, delivered by a single person playing an actual instrument with his actual hands, or maybe sung by a handful of people. You may be able to afford doctors beforehand and a mausoleum afterward, but at the moment of death you’re naked in the eyes of your maker, just like everybody else. Simple, unadorned rural music has been fetishized all over again in the past few years–I like to think the kids are sick of the constant jump cuts and meaningless superficial complexity of TV–and it’s never going to be truly passe as long as we’re still mortal. A form that existed long before you were born carries within it the suggestion that it’ll be around long after you’re gone, implying a kinship with the past and the dead just as effectively as a memento mori cut into a tombstone.

William Elliott Whitmore sings like he feels that kinship in his bones. The Iowa songwriter seems constantly aware of mortality–sometimes he’s droll about it, sometimes he accepts it, and sometimes he’s fearful, enraged, or sorrowful, but he’s never far from the final bottom line. When he plunks his banjo, strums his guitar, and stomps his foot, he’s marking out time like a heart that’s counting down the number of beats left in it. He’s defiant, though, not resigned: that stomp’s a protest, like he’s banging on a ceiling instead of a floor–a very low ceiling, with six feet of dirt on top.

Whitmore’s first album, 2003’s Hymns for the Hopeless, is a beautiful downer, written and recorded not long after the deaths of his parents. The sorrow is dense, rendered in shades of autumn-rain gray and the black of mountain ridges unbroken by electric lights. But the new Ashes to Dust, released Monday on Southern, comes out swinging: on the lead track, “Midnight,” there’s a bit of the southern preacher in Whitmore’s gravelly singing. I’m not convinced there’s much religion in it, though, at least not in the conventional sense–he seems to talk about sin and hell only because they’re useful, universally recognized symbols, and because the words fit the meter of his lines with a satisfying punch. What’s left is bare-trees existentialism: Whitmore stares down the void like he’s inherited the gene for desperate whistling in the dark. You get the feeling that a circular, repetitive tune like “The Day the End Finally Came” has a momentum all its own, and that now that he’s tapped into it he can’t shut it off–he’s pulled along, bound to it by his own consciousness of mortality.

It’s reasonable to wonder why a well-adjusted person would want to listen to this stuff, but I’m not the one to clear that up. I’ve been mesmerized by the crude elegance of this record since I first heard it–it’s not too often that I feel like spending a whole afternoon playing an album over and over. I hear a leap in Whitmore’s songwriting since Hymns for the Hopeless, a new sense of responsibility and remorse that gives his sorrow a gorgeous depth. You can hear it in the way his voice breaks into a ragged roar at the end of the ever escalating “Digging My Grave” (“My road to hell is surely paved / With all the love that I never gave”). You can hear it from the narrator of “Lift My Jug (Song for Hub Cale),” with his self-punishing fatalism and perverse cheer–he’s a sickly, out-of-work railroad engineer who’s decided to drink himself to death, and he toasts passing trains so eloquently you almost root for him to shuffle off his mortal coil right then and there, before the railroad stops running through his town. Haunting images and beautiful turns of phrase crop up everywhere in Whitmore’s lyrics (“a pile of sky-gray ash,” “the bluebird can sing but the crow’s got the soul”), but he never stops to show them off. Listening to him is like watching exquisite scenery through a grimy train window–you can barely make it out and it flies by in a moment, but that only increases its allure.

I know better by now than to expect artists with extravagantly dark visions to come with in-the-flesh personas to match–I met Clive Barker once, and he was sweet and chipper. But Whitmore evens looks the part, in his own modest way. A wiry 26-year-old white guy with scruff and tattoos and a rumpled, patient, unassuming air, he seems to find it a little funny and a little sad that the 60s folk revival has trained us to expect people making music like this to be well past retirement age. His February 17 headlining set at the Empty Bottle didn’t happen under ideal circumstances–he followed labelmates Tight Phantomz, local rockers of the big-belt-buckle-and-bitchin’-Camaro school–but his direct, no-nonsense demeanor managed to convey some of the seriousness of his commitment, at least to the better half of the crowd, and they simmered down and paid attention. The kid next to me went well past reverent deference, practically headbanging along to Whitmore’s stomp.

Whitmore probably didn’t need to offer a heartfelt “Thank you so much for listening!” every couple tunes, since everyone who wasn’t ignoring him at the bar was hooked and not going anywhere. And he definitely didn’t need the band that backed him for the second half of his set, turning the songs into slow-burning gothic country rockers. (The three-piece group was bassist Cale Arthur from Tight Phantomz, guitarist Joel Anderson of the defunct Ten Grand, and drummer Bob Adams, Anderson’s former bandmate and now a member of local banjo-driven combo the Early Risers.) But the extra musicians weren’t a detraction or a distraction either: like the young Johnny Cash overriding the autopilot bass part on “I Walk the Line,” Whitmore steers the songs with his voice, and most of his melodies have a clean, perfect simplicity that rolls right along, backdrop or no.

That simplicity sometimes seems like a trap–like anybody working with the blues and traditional Americana, Whitmore writes plenty of songs that sound a lot like one of his other songs. But the small variations between them draw more attention than dramatic differences would; it’s like in spoken word, where you can get people to listen harder to a whisper than to a shout. His set was draining and seemed brief, though I realized afterward that he’d played for a full hour. The emotional centerpiece of the show was “Porchlight,” the last track on Ashes to Dust and the final song of the set proper. It’s from the point of view of a farmer forced to face the reality of dying in a hospital instead of at home, where he used to work the fields till long after nightfall and his wife would leave the porch light on to help him find his way back in the darkness. A slow, aching mountain ballad, it drags us through most of the stages of his reconciliation with death, and by the closing lines–“Even though just a memory is all that I’ll be / Would you leave the porch light on for me?”–I was empathizing so closely with him that I felt just about ready to die myself. What could Whitmore do after that, except give us a minute to breathe before cranking up his encore?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.