William Elliott Whitmore doesn’t need to write sad songs anymore

The Iowa lifer started making music as a means to cope with the death of his parents. With a new daughter and a renewed outlook, he now moves into a more open future.

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
William Elliott Whitmore

While William Elliott Whitmore’s early years were shaped by death — he lost both of his parents as a teenager, releasing a trilogy of harrowing folk albums centered on grief in the years that followed — his time during the pandemic has been defined by life, the Iowa singer and songwriter having become a new father with the March 2020 birth of his daughter.

“You look at this brand-new baby and think, ‘This is everything. This is the future. This is all I care about,’” Whitmore said by phone from North Carolina, reached in the midst of a tour that brings him to Rumba Cafe on Sunday, Dec. 19. “Now I don’t even matter, or I only matter in so much as I am here to take care of you. … Holding my little baby, and now she’s almost 2, and she’s so fun. She can walk and talk and run around and make me laugh, and I can make her laugh. So, part of your brain shuts out the negative as a survival technique, where you can focus on the now. OK, we’re smiling and laughing and playing, and I’m going to choose to focus on that and let her feel secure.”

This sense of joy felt distant on early albums such as Ashes to Dust, from 2003, on which Whitmore delivered harrowing tunes like “Diggin’ My Grave,” a song he belted in his gruff, coal-miner voice, accompanied by nothing more than shaggy kick drum and steady banjo that scrapes like a spade across frozen earth.

Over time, though, Whitmore has healed, and his albums have in turn taken on an increasingly wizened, almost contented tone. Witness “Solar Flare,” a standout track off of I’m With You, released last year on Bloodshot Records, where Whitmore attends funerals and ponders the planet getting pulverized by a meteor, returning each time to the idea that he’ll be OK whenever his time is called. “I’m satisfied with the life I live,” he sings.

“Yes, there is that sense of contentment in trying to have a life well-lived, as we all are. We could go tomorrow, so, looking back, did I do OK? Did I leave it better than I found it?” Whitmore said. “And I know I wasn’t always OK, and I wasn’t always good. None of us are. But, on the whole you think, ‘I’m satisfied with the life I’ve lived.’ Even if it did take some time to come to that.”

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The album is also shot through with wisdom and advice Whitmore absorbed from his parents and grandparents, and which he intends to pass to his daughter, describing these accumulated life lessons as one way our elders carry on long after our death, along with some of those more easily observed characteristics.

“I look in the mirror now and it’s like, ‘There’s the Old Man right there,’ which is crazy in both good ways and bad,” Whitmore said. “And that’s when the picture becomes clearer, like, that’s how this ball keeps rolling, and that’s how the world keeps going. Oh, I’m where he was, and now my daughter is where I was, and it all just comes together. … No one lives forever, but this is how we live on. His blood is in my veins, and my mom, as well. One day it just happens, and you look up and it’s like, ‘Shit, there they are.’”

While there are times Whitmore does turn inward on I’m With You, particularly on “My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me,” he continues to take a more outward stance on songs like “History” and “MK Ultra Blues,” wrestling with the past and the shadow it continues to cast on the present. “Sometimes it’s healthy to have that self-examination where you take your own temperature and ask, ‘Am I OK?’ But then you can reach a line where you’re up your own ass too much,” Whitmore said, and laughed. “And then the focus turns outward, and you start writing about other things. … It’s like, ‘OK, I’m good. I’m healthy. I feel good. I’m in a good place. Time to turn this microscope toward something else.”

Whitmore’s motivations for making music have shifted along with this perspective. When he started recording, setting up barebones equipment in the barn of his family farm — a 160-acre spread in Lee County, Iowa, where Whitmore still lives and intends to die, as evidenced in songs like “Black Iowa Dirt” — the process served as self-preservation, giving him a place to pour his grief so that it didn’t take on potentially more damaging forms. 

“And it helped me through those years, and it was a way to survive,” Whitmore said. “If I was still feeling like that, then it didn’t work. But it did work, and I did heal up from all of that, along with time and distance and everything. I made it. And there are other hardships now, and things to write about, but … it’s not a matter of, ‘If I don’t get this off of my chest I’m going to explode.’ It’s not exactly like that anymore, which again is good, because it means this is working.”