April 11 2006 12:00 AM
Courtesy of Southern Records Songs of the soil: A new album and tour have lightened, but not lifted, roots singer William Elliott Whitmore’s burden of worldly woes.

Perhaps this is how
the young man has managed to pack the gravelly soul of a lifetime's
worth of pain into his first two albums, 2003's “Hymns for the
Hopeless” and last year's stirring “Ashes to Dust.”

Whitmore doesn't
fulfill common preconceptions about singer/songwriters. “I write about
dirt,” he says. “I was raised on a farm and am a son of the soil.”


Whitmore lives in Iowa but grew up on a horse farm along the Mississippi. His unique delivery and Southern gothic subject manner have earned him an extremely dedicated fan base, not only from those who appreciate roots-folk and Americana, but open-minded members of the punk rock and art scene as well.

{mosimage}When he lists what informed his spirit at a very young age, the source of his crossover appeal becomes apparent. “The people that inspired me when I was younger, aside from my father, were the likes of Ray Charles, Ralph Stanley, Frederick Douglass and Public Enemy,” he says. “These are people that spoke what they believed in and touched many people with a message that could be widely understood. They weren't just shoving anything down people's throats.”

Favorable comparisons to fellow gruff baritones Johnny Cash and Tom Waits are common for Whitmore, but the dark side does not beckon the young man the way it once did.

Indeed, Whitmore admits he may have finally kicked the skeletons out of his closet. A new album and tour are helping brush the cobwebs aside. “I think that people will see that I'm ready to move on a bit and cover some more grand topics,” he says.

“My strongest focus is trying to be a universal as possible, and I feel I have been able to accomplish that — somewhat,” he says. “I try real hard to connect with everyone I know, or even don't know, while still being honest to myself.”

Whitmore is nothing if not honest. Some of his songs sound like excerpts from a whiskey-drenched suicide letter.

Whitmore can be more brutally raw than any of his contemporaries and sound shockingly effortless at the same time.

He may be happier these days, but Whitmore is not abandoning the dark horse he rode in on — the classic hopeless anthems on his first two releases for Southern Records. “Diggin' My Grave” is an ode to slow self-destruction. “Lift My Jug” recounts the six-year-old Whitmore's  life-altering encounter with a hobo. In “Porchlight,” he sings of his dying father, struggling to deal with deep loss. 

But Whitmore says there's no real divide between the darker and more hopeful songs. “The bottom line is that music should heal,”  he says. “I went into my first two albums with that in mind, and that is still my incentive.”

How will Whitmore fare on his next album without the same ghosts haunting him? “I may be a little happier with where my life is in general, but it will still be the same sound,” he says. Although he recently signed a deal with the Anti division of predominantly punk-oriented Epitaph Records, Whitmore says he will never stop writing songs, no matter how many times his inspiration may shift. “This is in my blood,” he says. “I can't imagine not doing this for the rest of my life.”