William Elliott Whitmore has been described as a folk punk country banjo soul singer, and his new album I’m With You (out Oct. 17 on Bloodshot Records) is a fine example of all of those things. The album, Whitmore’s eighth, and his newest collection of original work since 2015’s Radium Death, manages to combine Merle Haggard and Mike Watt pretty seamlessly. I took my young son on a drive recently, put this on the VW’s stereo and proceeded to get lost along the roads of Washington County.
It opens with “Put it To Use,” a real showcase of both the writing talent Whitmore is known for and that signature voice, combining to tell the listener that time and talent aren’t to be wasted. The song is a good piece of advice with a hard driving banjo, and immediately I found myself singing along through the second chorus.
Whitmore’s gravel and grit bring out scenes of a workday done, a parent and an adult child having a discussion on a porch—the whole album is a conversation between Whitmore and someone from his past or present. As a girl from a farm family, this hits. The idea of time plays through the bulk of the album, in both obvious and more nuanced ways. It’s not surprising that this record is a collection of stories. Whitmore’s a dad now, and an Iowa boy, so the passing of time, stories and memories are things close to his heart.
The current single, “My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me,” is a raucous song that brought to mind the sounds of ’70s outlaw; upon its finish, I immediately played it again. I like everything about this song; I am a big fan of the pedal steel guitar. Whitmore is equally at home in the Americana music halls and the dive bar honky-tonks I grew up in. This album, like his others, really does a lot with simple songwriting and great hooks.
“History” is another real standout on the album, and the pedal steel again gives that faraway feel to expertly bring you to a standstill. This record does that, time and time again: stops you, makes you listen, makes you feel like these songs are fleeting and precious, that you should really listen. If time is ephemera, this song in particular keeps the record grounded.
Like all great country records, this album has that one song with a line that just grabs you. “Save Ourselves” isn’t just a love song, it’s a commentary on the state of the world, and the line in the song, delivered in that sad, plain way is “I can’t believe it went to hell so fast.” 2020 has brought me to that place many times, but Whitmore did it the most beautifully. I’d love to be alone in the Deadwood when this song comes on the jukebox.
The album finishes with the one thing that remains: “Black Iowa Dirt.” It’s a real burner of a song, and a reminder that the land ties us together, births us and ultimately buries us. This was my son’s favorite on the album, and a perfect ending to a near perfect record.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 287.