Photo by Chloe Millward Whitmore
Growing up on the family farm in Iowa, William Elliott Whitmore learned lessons from his father about respecting the land—how to care for crops, to never take more than is needed and, ultimately, to try to leave things better than how they were found. It’s with that wisdom that Whitmore tends to the very same acreage today, but it’s also how he forms his approach to his music.
“My dad was a real naturalist,” says Whitmore. “He would teach us about rotating crops and not planting the same thing over and over again. You have to diversify and switch it up because the soil likes it better. We’re stewards of the land; we don’t own it, and in our short time in this life we’ve got to take care of it and leave it for the next generation. And so I approach music in the same way. It’s this beautiful, fragile thing and you try to hold onto it and take care of it. You try to write good songs that make people think and maybe feel something, too, but you have to switch it up and try to diversify.”
That natural balance found throughout Whitmore’s 15-plus year career has never been more urgent than on his new album, Radium Death. Known for the sparse, haunting qualities of his mostly solo recordings of what he refers to as “roots-folk music,” in which his husky voice is often accompanied by little more than a banjo or acoustic guitar, Whitmore sought to add some new pitches to his bullpen and began writing songs last year with some changes in place.
“I purposefully went into it wanting to make a little bit of a departure, sonically, using an electric guitar a little bit more and adding more instrumentation, more full-band type stuff,” says Whitmore. “I wanted to switch it up a little bit and plug in to see what that felt like.”
Sketching out material around the old Lee County farmhouse in between time spent feeding the animals, tending to the crops, working in his woodshop and hanging with his wife, each week Whitmore would travel the two hours to Iowa City and Flat Black Studios, built and operated by his cousin and producer, Luke Tweedy. Together, they would rehearse, record and build songs, sometimes welcoming other musicians to play live on a track and sometimes letting Whitmore work out a tune by himself. The relaxed pace was also an experiment for the artist, whose work on the farm requires a strict routine around which music and touring are scheduled.
“I’ve never taken that long to do anything,” says Whitmore. “There’s something to be said for banging out an album in a few days, but it was also nice to be able to work on stuff and bring it home, listen, then go back and try other things. I try not to be rigid in my habits; you don’t want to repeat yourself too much. But certain things tend to pop up—you are what you are, and that’s good. There’s a balance. I’ve only got a few tricks up my sleeve so I have to try and keep things as fresh as possible. This fulfilled a different part of my musical brain that needed fulfilling.”
Energized by this diversifying, and also given the space to pair a patient sense of craft with the usual punk rock spirit to which Whitmore has always paid homage, the songs on Radium Death hum with an exigent electricity—whether amplified or not. It was through the punk scene that the singer broke into music in the first place, discovering bands like The Jesus Lizard, Bad Brains, Lungfish and Minutemen and learning to play his own brand of rural, roots music with that same DIY ethic. “Opening up for hardcore bands was the only way I could figure out to get into any kind of music scene,” he says. “There wasn’t really any coffeehouse folk scene where I was, so I kind of came in through the side door, playing my banjo, and it stuck out in people’s minds and I was able to make my way doing that.” Even his new album’s title reeks of mohawks and mosh pits—but in typical Whitmore fashion, there is much more going on beneath the surface.
“I was reading a lot about the so-called ‘radium girls’ of the early 1900’s, these assembly lines of women painting watch dials with radium to make them glow in the dark,” he says, detailing how the workers would lick the tips of their paintbrushes to get them pointy while dipping them repeatedly into the chemical substance before it was known to be dangerous. “Slowly, they were getting sick, and eventually they filed a lawsuit and won some restitution when it became clear that it was the radium causing their health problems. So, in my mind ‘radium death’ came to represent something that you’re told is good for you—maybe by a higher power—but really is killing you. It represents those lies that are told, and how we can protect ourselves against them.”
The songs assembled herein, while not a concept album, per se, present a cohesive look into those recurring Whitmore themes of respect, protection, sustenance and survival. The blazing (even by WEW standards) opener, “Healing To Do,” pulls no punches, kicking in immediately with the rhythmic shuffle of a full band, an organ, and Whitmore’s upbeat rasp: “Times can change/and I hope that I can too/This world is strange/I guess we’ve all got some healing to do.” It’s a call-to-arms to stand up and overcome the collective damage done, propelled by an incensed, 10-second-long scream, a cross between a hardcore singer’s howl and a hoarse wakeup call from a rooster who never went to sleep. The pace continues with songs like “Trouble in Your Heart,” “1000 Deaths” and “Don’t Strike Me Down,” preaching patient hope, rebirth, renewal, and revolt over stomping drums, acoustic strumming and even an electric guitar solo.
It’s not all stomp-and-circumstance, however. “Civilizations” features only Whitmore’s bare banjo and croon, a “thinly veiled environmental message—but what’s music good for if not to get your point across a little bit?” he muses. “Can’t Go Back” is a slow, country waltz complete with gorgeous pedal steel designed to break up the album’s dynamics and tempo. And “South Lee County Brew” is an old live favorite, an ode to another time-honored call-to-arms: moonshine. “That’s a straight-up drinking song, no explanation necessary,” Whitmore laughs. “It brings people together—it’s not really about the booze, it’s about the togetherness, and I like the idea that it’s been going on for hundreds of years, just continuing on the tradition. I always had this idea to make a new modern-standard, and in fifty years someone could cover it. Much in that way I’m continuing the musical tradition of playing the banjo; I want to keep that alive.”
Radium Death’s final song, “Ain’t Gone Yet,” is a powerful, optimistic number that ends with a raucous train-beat reprise, like a gospel standard closing a service with choir members clapping and whooping along. Continuing his father’s lessons of the land, Whitmore encourages us to look past the inevitable dust we become in order to live fully in the present. “We’ll all be gone someday, so while we’re here let’s do as much good as we can,” he says. “We all want to leave the world a little better than we found it. While I’m here I’m gonna do something good or fail miserably while I try. I ain’t gone yet, I’m still kicking.”
It’s that sentiment of dutiful respect that sets William Elliott Whitmore apart from his contemporaries. He is but a steward—of his land, of his songs—and when he is gone, returned to dust, his craft will live on for the next generation: beautiful, fragile, good.