With a voice that sounds like the reincarnation of an old gospel preacher from the 1920s, and a fascination with sin, death, and redemption to match, William Elliott Whitmore's songs recall the particularly raw qualities of vintage 20th century blues songs, holler moans, and gospel shouts recorded in the early 20th century in the field. That said, his songs are often delivered with the raw energy and emotional immediacy of punk. Beginning with 2003's Hymns for the Hopeless, Whitmore's ragged crow-croak of a voice comes from the mysterious place where blues and gospel first converged to become country. In addition to playing his banjo and stompbox, he is a more than passable guitarist who is never less than proficient at accompanying himself. He signed to Anti- for 2009's Animals in the Dark, and delivered three acclaimed albums for the label. He switched gears for 2015's Radium Death by employing a full band. He signed with Bloodshot for 2018's eclectic all-covers set Kilonova.
Born the son of a farmer, Whitmore was raised on a horse farm on the banks of the Mississippi River outside of Keokuk, Iowa. His songs have a stark universality that is sketched out with minimal instrumentation, usually just a banjo or guitar and a smattering of percussion. Whitmore is rumored to have gotten his start in the music business by working as a roadie for Iowa hardcore band Ten Grand, famous for their fast and furious 20-minute sets — Whitmore frequently stepped in with his own songs to fill out the time. His voice is like a cross between Captain Beefheart and Dock Boggs, and his folk- and blues-inflected songs feel like they've been left out in the rain for months, weathered and tightened to the snapping point.
Whitmore released Hymns for the Hopeless on Southern in 2003, followed by Ashes to Dust, also on Southern, in 2005. He appeared on the 2006 compilation Let's Be Active along with two other artists. In 2006, Whitmore released a third album on Southern, the characteristically stark (and critically acclaimed) Song of the Blackbird. Animals in the Dark followed in 2009. Whitmore toured extensively in late 2009 and for much of 2010, and saw his reputation as a songwriter increase, as he played for ever larger audiences. He returned to recording in early 2011 with another stripped-down set entitled Field Songs, which was released by Anti- in July of that year. He undertook a tour with Low Anthem and James Vincent McMorrow before embarking on his own headlining tour, which took him everywhere from small clubs to folk festival stages.
But Whitmore never gave up farming. With a desire to change-up his process, he began writing songs in 2013 and traveling two hours to work with producer Luke Tweedy in Iowa City over the next year-and-a-half. The end result was Radium Death, an album that, while retaining Whitmore's hard folk roots, was fleshed out by full-on rock band arrangements. Anti- released the set in March of 2015. After touring with a full band, Whitmore went back to playing solo, farming, and thinking about where to go next. He left Anti- for Bloodshot in 2017 and re-entered the studio to cut his dream project: A covers album entitled Kilonova. The ten-song set included solo acoustic versions of songs he'd covered in concert, ranging from the first single, "Fear of Trains," by Magnetic Fields to Harlan Howard's "Busted," Bad Religion's "Don't Pray on Me," Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," and Captain Beefheart's "Bat Chain Puller." Kilonova was released in the fall of 2018. ~ Steve Leggett