Unless you count curvaceous women singing studio-altered ballads written by someone else, and aimed at prepubescent teenagers, it’s fair to say that a surefire route to European musical success is something that’s yet to be discovered. A good thing that is, too. But if ever there was a recipe for failure, William E Whitmore may just have it: political alternative country music from America’s deep south, bred from a hardcore punk background. It’s a credit to him, then, that the deep-voiced bluesman from the depths of backcountry Iowa, who still finds cities something of a challenge, has proven such an impressive underground hit. Perhaps it’s the prevalence of banjos in his music, or the fact that he rarely gets through a live show without being handed numerous double whiskeys. Perhaps it’s the straightforward honesty of his music, or the way he speaks about his family’s farm on the banks of the Mississippi with such unbridled affection. Whatever it is, though, State finds Mr. Whitmore curious alluring, and based on his European dates so far, we’re not the only ones. We caught up with him prior to his latest trip across the pond, with a quick quiz on life, politics and his relentless touring schedule.
Sum up William E. Whitmore for us in a few words.
A regular, hard-working man who enjoys life.
Farm boy to budding superstar. That must have been a hell of a road. What’s been the biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest challenge was getting accustomed to large metropolitan areas while traveling. A city like Dublin is beyond beautiful but so different from the farm.
You’re a very political songwriter, particularly in ‘Animals in the Dark’. How would you describe your own politics? What are you hoping listeners will take from the political side of your songs?
I don’t trust politicians and never will. My own beliefs are simple; be good to each other and support legislation that falls in line with that notion.
I’m sure you’re aware of the reputation artists like Bono have for their outspoken political agendas. Do you think it’s possible to have too much politics in music?
It’s definitely possible to have too much politics in music. I try to strike a balance and not preach. My goal is to comment on broader issues such as human nature and the basic animalistic tendencies we all have. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, just attempting to understand these subjects myself.
There can’t be many more prolific touring artists than you. What are the best and worst things about being on tour?
The best thing about touring is seeing windows into other cultures and experiencing new things. The worst thing is missing my family and home. ‘¨’¨’¨’¨’¨’¨
What’s your song writing process, and how do you fit it in amongst all the gigs and traveling?
Songs reveal themselves to me in myriad ways, each one unique in its unveiling. I’m constantly writing, even on the road. Inspiration tends to kick the door down. ‘¨’¨’¨’¨’¨’¨
Not many people could get away with opening for a hardcore punk band by twanging away on a banjo, but that’s what you had to face in your early live shows. How did that work out?
I’ve opened for heavy metal bands in Germany, hardcore punk bands in L.A., experimental noise groups in New York, and everything in between. It always works because I strive to make it work. The audience is often taken aback at first, eventually coming around. ‘¨’¨’¨’¨’¨’¨
You’ve been stepping up the collaborations recently. Tell us your dream gig line up. Who would you play with, and who would be on stage with you?
My dream gig would be Mavis Staples, Neko Case, and myself singing onstage at once, with Neil Young playing guitar.
Your fans have a tradition of providing out with on-stage whiskey (we just wanted to make sure your Irish fan base don’t let you down!), has it ever gone too far?
I love the on-stage whiskey, but I’m only one man with one liver. I’ve gotten so drunk at a show that I’ve played the same song twice and forgotten words to other songs. I have no regrets though.
We found a fan quote online that described you like this . . . “Will’s a remarkable banjo-playing, guitar-plucking bluesman from Iowa, with the raspiest, old manliest voice you’ve ever heard tumble from the belly of someone barely 30.” No doubt you’ll love the first part, but what do you make of the old-man references?
I don’t mind the old man comparisons. I’ve abused my voice enough for three lifetimes and now I’m forced to live with it. I guess I’ll never be able to croon like Dean Martin.
Tell us a messy William Whitmore tour story . . ..’¨’¨’¨’¨
There are many messy tour stories the details of which can never be made public. After I’m dead my journals can be published, but until then imaginations will have to fill in the gaps.
Finally, do you have a message we can pass on to your Irish fans?
Be well my friends, see you soon . . .
As published on State.ie, September 2009.