Album Review – William Elliott Whitmore: Field Songs

Will Whitmore grew up in Lee County Iowa near the shore of the Mississippi River. He makes a living singing for people, accompanying himself on guitar and banjo. He writes simple songs, in the American acoustic folk music idiom. Field Songs is his latest record and comprises eight songs that say what they have to say in plain language.

But, for people all over the world who have seen Will play live, the bare-faced, look-you-in-the-eye simplicity of his music is a thing that evokes awe and reverence. I’ve seen Will silence 300 liquored up, sweaty people at Gabe’s so completely that it seemed everyone in the room was holding their breath, with just a $50 banjo and his voice.

You can’t really explain that kind of talent. Or maybe it’s Will’s complete lack of pretension and disdain for artifice that powers his music. Writing simple songs that people want to hear is much harder than constructing something flashy and complicated.

“Field Song” is a simple song that begins by describing the lives of the homesteaders who settled Iowa: “Let’s go to the field we’re gonna do some work. Spend our day digging in the dirt. We’ll hope the rain follows the plow.” This contrasts devastatingly with the next verse: “…the manifest destiny of the factory farms, when those cutthroats came and burned down the barn.”
“Let’s Do Something Impossible” celebrates the peculiarly American cussed individualism, invoking both the liberation of Paris and the Battle of Little Big Horn: “…when Custer comes over the hill oh let ‘em fly, let your arrows fly.”

Subtle natural sounds of birds, cicadas and frogs surround and infuse the songs with front porch ambience. Field Songs was recorded with remarkable transparency and clarity by Will’s cousin Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studio. Will and Luke do something impossible, making music that is as evocative and mythic as a John Ford Western, and as intimate as sharing a jar of home made corn liquor sitting under a black locust tree.