William Elliott Whitmore is a rural-based recording artist who, for two decades, has melded the acoustic traditions of traditional country, Appalachian music, and the world in between while writing modern, insightful lyrics. Currently signed to Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, the label that “has championed the music that lurks between genres,” Whitmore just released the all-original I’m With You, his first album since his 2018 recording of Kilonova, an album of covers by artists from Magnetic Fields to ZZ Top. American Songwriter caught up with Whitmore on the phone at his farm in southeast Iowa, where he was enjoying new parenthood and preparing for a paid livestream unveiling of the new album tomorrow, Saturday, October 17.
“This streaming thing, I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said. “It’ll just be me at my farm, playing the album straight through, navigating this new world of music.”
I’m With You contains the song “My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me,” with an appearance by octogenarian Midwest steel guitar legend Dale Thomas and a vocal performance that brings both Johnny Cash and Travis Tritt to mind. “That song is about what Mark Twain called the ‘devil’s racetrack,’” Whitmore said, “when your mind gets on a negative thought and you can’t get it out of there, and it’s often at 3:00 in the morning. And the way the world is, it’s hard not to wake up with these negative thoughts, and say, ‘Man, my mind is messin’ with me.’” As has been the case for years, the new album was recorded at Flat Black Studios, the studio of his cousin, Luke Tweedy, north of Whitmore’s farm near Iowa City.
Whitmore is a new father, which he says has been a good thing for him in terms of his creativity. “It’s a hard thing to shut off,” he said. “I’m thinking of guitar riffs, and lyrics are my main thing, I keep notebooks full of ideas and starts to songs and a half a chorus, I keep notebooks of all that stuff. You’re always looking for inspiration everywhere, so having a new baby has turned on a floodgate in my mind. Writing songs is a way to be able to understand the world a little better, for me, so I can’t shut it off. Anyone who writes songs will tell you there’s droughts too, man, and there are periods where I’m just not flowing as much, but I don’t worry about that. You just try to live life and it’ll come. But having a new baby is some great inspiration.”
When Whitmore travels and performs alone, which he mainly does, he only takes a handful of string instruments with him. “I’ve got a bunch of different banjos,” he said, “but of my main two, my road banjo is a Deering Deluxe that I’ve taken the fifth string off of. Every since I started playing banjo when I was 18, I’ve taken that G string off. My grandpa was a banjo picker and that’s what he did. So it’s basically a five-string that I made into a four-string. And then I have a Deering Golden Era that I keep at home and for the studio so it doesn’t get beat up on the road. And I play kind of a more affordable Martin, a D-15, for my acoustic, which is a good road dog, it’s a nice guitar. You realize, flying to Europe and Australia and all over the place, you don’t want an expensive guitar that’s gonna get beat up by the airlines.”
Unlike so many who have left home to seek success in Nashville or another music center, Whitmore said that he’s stayed rooted at his Iowa home not far from the Mississippi River. “I love my home so much,” he said. “I’ve played in Nashville dozens of times of course, but I have a family farm here. It’s no longer a working farm, but I actually live on the same farm I grew up on, I live there with my wife and our six-month-old baby. So my love for this place runs really deep.”
“When I got a chance to hit the road,” he continued, “over 20 years ago now, that fulfilled that wanderlust and that need to make music all over the place. That sort of scratched that itch. I got a real education on the road, playing the Grog Shop in Cleveland and the Mohawk in Buffalo, New York, and doing these clubs, the Exit/In in Nashville – playing all these different sorts of venues. And knowing I had my home to come back to was always important. I needed that root, I needed that constant in my life and I’m fortunate to have that. It’s just a small little acreage, but it’ll always kinda be my true north, and moving somewhere else was never really an option.”
“It’s good to come back to where people don’t really care about all that music and career stuff. And they shouldn’t.”