It sounds bizarre on paper: William E. Whitmore was to play an afternoon set in a winery in New York City. Yes, that William E. Whitmore, the full-sleeve-tattooed old-timey banjo picker who came out of the Iowa hard-core punk scene, now playing in a wood-panelled winery in SOHO, New York City, among the $300 Chablis and $700 Chateau Rothchild. Ten minutes before his set, he came crashing through the door with only a banjo and a guitar, having just landed in Newark airport. Well, the man travels light. The venue seemed a galaxy away from where he woke up that morning, in his recently converted (“This summer I just put in electricity”) corn crib that stands on the Whitmore farm in Lee County, Iowa. He was taken past the rows of tables waiting to be filled that evening with Amy Mann fans and through to where he has been booked to play: on the loading dock in the winery’s parking lot, during an afternoon weekly mini-festival at which wine (and some premium beer) and snacks are served. Now that’s more like it!
The humor is not lost on Whitmore. With the exception of a performance at Bonnaroo, he had spent the previous two months on the farm “not really seeing that many people.” It was an exuberant set. One man, one banjo or guitar (depending on the song), a sack-full of stories, and as many guffaws of laughter coming from the stage as from the audience. He even came out into the audience to shake hands with the crowd halfway through his performance.
After the set we sit in the parking lot, a good few beers into the warm early summer evening with some of Whitmore’s Brooklyn friends. The hour of stardom is over; the revelers have gone; the sun is setting; and the wine, beer, and cheese stalls have all been taken down. The cleanup crew is supplying a different type of music in the form of dust-cart beeps and bottles clinking away in large garbage bags as they are being dragged around the empty parking lot. The back door to the winery is locked shut as Amy Mann entertains within.
If you don’t know where exactly Lee County, Iowa, is, you’re not alone. It’s tucked away in the hills of the southeast corner of the state, near where Missouri and Illinois meet. Whitmore lives on the 160-acre Whitmore family farm. Also on the farm are his grandmother and uncle, who tend the farm while Whitmore is on tour, as well as chickens, dogs, horses, and mules. It’s right near the Mississippi River and not too far from the Ozark Mountains. Well, that might explain the mountain music, then.
“I definitely consider myself hill folk,” said Whitmore. “But I do distinguish that I’m a hillbilly and not a redneck. ‘Redneck’ has certain connotations. Hillbillies — we’re more at peace with the world.”
The farm and the area that surrounds it are also his heartbeat, his center of gravity. “I’m very, very proud to be where I’m from. I could live anywhere, but this is where I got to be,” Whitmore said. “I’m a hip-hop junkie for the language aspects of it. When I listen to Jay-Z or Mos Def, they’re constantly saying, ‘Brooklyn stand up!’ I love that! Being proud of where you’re from. It’s so special to their heart. Like the street where they’re from, no one knows what that means, but they make you want to know, they make you like, ‘I want to be from Brooklyn.’ To me, this is my chance to talk about where I’m from.”
Whitmore’s four CDs are stark windswept affairs with sparse backing. They sound like they’re sung by a man with boots, britches, and those wide suspenders that you see in old etchings of farmhands. One imagines that his hands may even be calloused from a hard day behind a horse-drawn plough. But there’s a strong punk and hardcore asthetic to his music. It has nothing to do with the fact that Whitmore is a 30-year-old with full-sleeve tattooes and tattooed knuckles. Nor does it have anything to do with his involvement in the early 90s hardcore punk scene. His playing is rough, and his songs are direct and unembellished.
There is less difference between punk and hillbilly music than one might imagine, if you cast your imagination back to the days pre-freeway and pre-electricty, which also means pre-radio and pre-phonograph. It’s not that long ago; people who can remember those days are still alive. Imagine a place deep in the country, far from any city. It’s so quiet you can hear the leaves fall off the trees. You might even hear someone chopping wood three miles away.
Now imagine someone like Son House or Bukka White bashing out a tune on a National Steel and belting out hollers at the top of their lungs. They were telling stories about good times, bad times, fight, struggle, and drinking — or the lack of it. Three-minute postcards from their side of the tracks. They may not have been accomplished players in the technical sense of the word. It may have lacked subtlety and nuance, but there’s no lack of drive and raw expressionism, and there’s enough emotion to bottle and sell along with bottles of white lightning. What is not punk about that? In the general quietness of the times they must have sounded almost deafening.
The same could be said for oldtime banjo player Uncle Dave Macon in the saloons and—Lord above—a full string band such as Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers or the Mississippi Sheiks; they must have just sounded like a nuclear assault, bashing away in the corner with no amplification. “Those guys were the punks of their day,” according to Whitmore. “Who’s more punk than Lead Belly? Guys that could just pound out an acoustic guitar in a room full of people and make themselves be heard, and out-work and out-drink everyone. Lead Belly was always my hero because he said it how he saw it; he worked, and he wasn’t pretending.”
Both of Whitmore’s grandfathers played banjo, and his father and mother played guitar and accordion, respectively, so there was no shortage of music around the family farm. But it was coming across hardcore bands like Bad Religion, Minor Threat, and the Minute Men that completed the picture. “I realized, ‘Oh this is the same attitude that those guys were doing, except they were doing it in a new way—electrified and a little different approach, but the same kind of sentiment. Minor Threat isn’t that different than Lead Belly, when you think about it.”
It wasn’t long before Whitmore got involved with the Iowa hardcore punk scene. He started as a roadie with Iowa City band Ten Grand, who was renowned for its 20-minute sets. “They would let me open up playing my banjo,” Whitmore explained. “The crowd never expected it. It was kind of guerilla-style, where I would just get up with the banjo and play a couple of tunes.
“When you’re there to see a loud screaming band and there’s a guy with a banjo, I think it was just crazy enough to work. The hardcore and punk scene was where the hunger was. That’s where I learned about DIY and people doing their own booking and making their own shows. I had never heard anything before, coming from the farm.” Whitmore’s time with Ten Grand also served as a de facto Performance 101 class. “I have those guys to thank for a lot, because that was how I cut my teeth with touring and playing in front of an unorthodox crowd. Subsequently, [I] went on to tour with a lot of hardcore and punk bands. Everything—noise bands, puppet shows, circus bands—I’ve played with [everyone you could imagine].”
Fast-forward a few years, and Whitmore and his banjo were on Southern Records, the studio, distribution hub, and home of Crass and the Subhumans. He released three CDs over a three-year period. The songs were raw and weatherbeaten. If he could have been an object, it would be a rusty plough, left in the field and covered in dirt. The music was dark, desolate, and internal. There were song titles like “Diggin’ My Grave,” “The Day the End Finally Came,” and “One Man’s Shame.” If that’s not dark enough, there’s also “Pine Box” and “From the Cell Door to the Gallows.” Anybody notice a theme?
Between the time he was 16 and 18, Whitmore’s father died of cancer, his grandfather died, and his mother had a fatal motorbike accident. “I’d been into playing music before that, but now I had something to write about. I had this thing to express. All of a sudden I had my own songs to try and hammer out.” Whitmore locked himself away and tried to process. It seemed to work.
“It was a pretty hard period,” he explained. “I pretty much wrote all those songs in a span of a few months. It was my little way to deal with all the things that were going on. Rather than do something counterproductive like jump off a bridge, I decided to start writing songs. When I got my first record deal they wanted three records, so I divided it up into a trilogy.”
The three CDs are literally the sound of a young man falling apart and trying to come to grips with the harsh reality of life. “They’re in the order that I wrote them,” Whitmore said. “Track one of the first CD is called ‘Cold and Dead.’ ” Out of the silence comes a lone ravaged voice, defeated by sorrow. “Oh sing with me a hymn for the light that has dimmed,” it wails. “For the heart that no longer beats . . .” It closes with the refrain “Oh, the sun will never shine on this cold, dead heart of mine.” There’s definitely not a whole lot of room left for interpretation.
The song that ends the last CD is “Everyday.” A banjo is gently strummed. It’s slow and sad. “As the sun came up over that Eastern field today,” sings the same ragged voice, “I could not help but think of you.” The same ragged and forlorn voice heard on “Cold and Dead” is quieter this time. It’s more internal and reflective—more like a thought. As the song progresses, the sun starts to go down over the same field. “Wherever you are I hope your wounds have healed,” the voice continues, “and you forgive me for the pain I put you through.” The voice sounds a little more serene, as if coming to terms with loss and accepting the fact that, although he may never get over it, he can at least get used to it. You could say it’s a “moving on” song.
“Yeah!” agreed Whitmore. “You kind of grow a bit and realize what’s going on. That [‘Everyday’] was my last chance to write about it.”
Whitmore’s latest CD, Animals in the Dark, is a different affair from the trilogy. It’s his first on Anti- Records (a subsidiary of Epitaph Records, the label founded by Minor Threat). It still carries the sparse, weathered, son-of-the-soil material delivered with shovelfuls of Iowa dirt, but with a little more production. It’s also a clear departure from the darkness and sorrow of the trilogy. “It’s more outward-looking,” said Whitmore. He opens proceedings with “Mutiny,” a song about . . . well . . . a mutiny on a ship, that is also a commentary on politics, the state of the world, and the power structure. “There’s definitely some political-minded stuff, but more about the human condition. How we treat each other and how we are towards each other. More important than that, even, how human beings in power treat everyone else. It was kind of inspired by George Bush, but it could be Ceasar, it could be Gordon Brown, it could be anyone, even your crazy boss at work.
“Since human beings started having thumbs, we could pick up a club and wield power over another person. There’ll always be poor people, there’ll always be rich people, and those in between. So it’s important to remember that, and it’s important to find your place in all that, too.”
The curtain closes on the new record with an expression of the joys of being alive, “Good Day to Die.” It’s a far cry from “Cold and Dead”:
It was a beautiful day,
And the sun was shining high.
Not a cloud up above
It was a good day to die . . .
Might one posit then, that things are good? “I’ve been writing a lot for the next record,” remarked Whitmore. “I’m pretty proud of it so far. It’s a couple of thirds done.” He is one of those writers that is always jotting and scribbling. “I can’t help it. It’s not all good or anything. I write on brown paper bags and back of receipts. You’ve got to separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say. It ain’t all wheat! Just when I don’t think I have anything more to say, a little more leaks out. This one might be a little more farm-oriented. Animals in the Dark was a little more outward. This one might come back a little inward.”
And so, it seems the farm is no longer full of the dark memories he once had. “I’ve been building my cabin. I’m finally going to put a bathroom in, which will be great!”
—Gianluca Tramontana (New York, NY)
Animals in the Dark [Anti- (2009)]
Hallways of Always [Southern (2006)]
Song of the Blackbird [Southern (2006)]
Latitudes [Southern (2005)]
Ashes to Dust [Southern (2005)]
The Day the End Finally Came [Southern (2004)
Hymns for the Hopeless [Southern (2003)]
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