In the scurry to get a taste of what’s new, what’s good, what’s hip, I failed to take a look in my own backyard. We’ve got it rough in Iowa; most tend to think our lone contribution to the musical lore is Slipknot, or at the very least, one of their side-projects. There’s more to the landscape than corn, hogs, and metal bands with mask-wearing personnel, I can assure you, but unfortunately the landscape is littered with more bands that ape their influences than bands that are actually inspired by them.
We’ve had a long musical dry spell in Iowa. We’ve had an even longer dry spell in my old hometown of Keokuk, Iowa, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in the southeastern corner of the state. In the 60s, there was a band called Gonn from here. One of the thousands of garage bands that littered the American landscape in the wake of Beatlemania, they were good enough to get added to Rhino Records’ expanded box of Nuggets.
The lead singer and bassist in Mr. Mister was also from Keokuk, but he left sooner than you could say “Kyrie.” I don’t think he’s been back since he was six and, quite honestly, I don’t blame him; Keokuk is one of those towns that had the misfortune of building its streets on the back of the manufacturing industry and when those jobs left, it became one of those towns that had the misfortune of being introduced to methamphetamine.
From what I understand, William Elliott Whitmore still resides around Keokuk. So imagine my surprise when I picked up his third album for Southern, Song Of The Blackbird. It’s the type of album with enough well-worn lyrics and authentic Americana arrangements to make me beam with hometown pride and chastise myself for not hearing about this guy sooner.
Grounded in traditional folk, Song Of The Blackbird comes with the required banjo/acoustic guitar accompaniment while occasionally allowing for full-band arrangements. These sparse conditions place the focus on two of Whitmore’s strengths: his voice and his songwriting, both of which belie his age. His birth certificate might say he’s only 28, but his lyrics point to a full life of the obligatory Midwestern dilemma of waking up to go to church on Sunday morning while still nursing the hangover from Saturday night’s indiscretions.
On “One Man’s Shame” (mp3), he explains “one man’s story / is another man’s shame / I ain’t bound for glory / I’m bound for flames” while offering a legitimate justification for straying from the flock: “I came for the drinks / but I stayed for the love.” It goes without saying that, in Keokuk, the bars and taverns tend to outnumber the churches.
Whitmore’s vocal inspiration at times mirrors Tom Waits and Chris Whitley, yet his lyrics avoid being derivative. Waits, in particular, uses many different locales in his songwriting while Whitmore seems content to find the muse off the gravel roads he travels each day. This slow-cooked approach works thanks to the meager arrangements that he uses in each of the album’s nine tracks. And clocking in at just over thirty minutes, you’re never too full of his material to ask for seconds.
Iowa isn’t that big of a place to begin with, so it still bewilders me how a guy like me who prides himself on being informed about music has overlooked Whitmore. My only redemption is to encourage you to take a closer look at your own backyard, and after that, to take a look at what’s hiding in the cornfields of Iowa. The scarecrow that is Slipknot’s horror mask shouldn’t frighten you away from the >Song of The Blackbird.