William Elliot Whitmore would make a great comic book hero. As a resident of Lee County, Iowa, he farms and leads a low-key life. Get him out on the road with a banjo, however, and instantly he becomes a singer with a superhuman voice that can seemingly call life from the soil or wild dreams of abandon from the resigned and conservative. It’s a voice with such depth and gravel that it cannot be disbelieved.
“Let’s do something impossible, let’s do something grand, let’s bet it all on one horse. Because you and me, you and me, are going to win of course,” Whitmore sings on “Let’s Do Something Impossible.” And you think, “Hell, yeah! Here’s my cash, my ATM card, and my PIN. Have at it.”
Field Songs is Whitmore’s sixth album and his second on Anti-, which is also home to Tom Waits. Like Waits, Whitmore sounded like he could be an octogenarian even in his 20’s. Where Waits often prefers the role of trickster, though, Whitmore is much more grounded. In fact, he probably sings more about dirt than just about any living songwriter. Take for instance, the title track, “Field Songs” and the album’s opener, “Bury Your Burdens In The Ground.” Dirt, for Whitmore, is a magical substance. You can use it to dispose of your troubles, grow food, bury your dead, or make a road.
In his earlier work, Whitmore has always gone lean with the instrumentation and studio effects. Field Songs is no different. This minimalism lets his lyrics and voice shine through but it also keeps each album sounding similar to the last. In a live setting, Whitmore is known to mix things up, integrating heavier rhythms into his songs. He’s also hinted at a possible collaboration with the industrial hip hop group Dälek. While Whitmore could likely write great songs in a similar fashion for his entire life, it would be interesting to see him push his sound in new directions.
As for the comic book idea, I think a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Wendell Berry would be just about perfect.