How to stay ever vigilant: William Elliott Whitmore at Grey Area 2019

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Grey Area 2019

Grey Area Acreage — Friday-Saturday, Aug. 9-10

William Elliott Whitmore performs to a sold out Englert Theatre. Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

On the farm where he was raised in Montrose, Iowa, William Elliott Whitmore is spending the afternoon rearranging his wood shop. He just got back home after a couple of weeks touring throughout the Northwest, and he’s just glad to be back at work putting things in order: in his head, his wood shop and his garden.

“It’s kind of prime garden time. And so you know, I get home and my garden is overgrown with weeds and I’ve got to get that back under control and get everything watered,” he said over the phone.

He’s performing Saturday night at Grey Area, a two-day, family friendly music festival featuring 15 bands at Grey Area Acreage just south of Iowa City. There’s free camping on the grounds and free admission to “humans 16 years of age and under.” Tickets are $40.

Flat Black Studios has been Whitmore’s home studio since the beginning, and he says that the Grey Area festival is the “baby” of Luke Tweedy, owner of Flat Black and Whitmore’s cousin.

“The idea is that it’s all bands that have recorded at the studio, so it’s sort of a way to … showcase a bunch of not only local talent, but talent from all over the place that comes here to record,” Whitmore said. “It’s a way to get together with those people again.”

Whitmore played the festival last year with his band Middle Western, but has never played a solo set. Tweedy has lined up a diverse roster of acts, including The Appleseed Cast, Dead Rider, and Tweedy’s own group, Sinner Frenz.

“I got some some old friends that are playing too, Tight Phantomz … They’re some old friends from Chicago. They played last year, and they’re really, really good,” Whitmore said. “Both Karen Meat and Annalibera have played before and they’re both just awesome. That’s an example of some younger talent who have just been doing great, innovative, new, cool music. I just love it. There’s all sorts of good, new stuff that I haven’t heard yet. That’s half the thing: to try to keep my finger on the pulse of the music that’s happening locally. And so this is a good way to do that, to see something that you might not have seen before.”

Apart from this weekend, Whitmore is planning for a busy rest of 2019, all centering around time spent in the Flat Black studio. First, he’s preparing for the release of his second Hallways of Always album, recorded with Erase Errata frontwoman Jenny Hoyston. He’s also planning on getting Middle Western, the rock band he co-fronts with David Zollo, back into Flat Black before year’s end. And in September, he’s planning to record his 10th solo album, titled I’m With You.

“I’m really, really proud of this,” he said. “I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve written in a long time.”

Whitmore says that he started work on the album in earnest right after his album of covers, 2018’s Kilonova, was finishing up.

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“I’m excited to record an album of all originals again,” he said. “It’ll be fun to get back in the studio, and hopefully that’ll be out by spring on Bloodshot Records. It’ll be good to get back to my solo thing. That’s where my heart and soul is.”

All the songs began in an outbuilding that Whitmore built on his farm. Filled with instruments, a desk and a drafting table, Whitmore says he approaches it each day the same way he approaches the rest of the work on his Montrose farm.

“It’s nice to have a separate place from your house, just a separate place to go to, and I know that, ‘OK, this is where the creativity is going to happen, this is where the work gets done,’” he said. “I fiddle around with a melody and fiddle around with lyrics and stuff, and then I go to the wood shop and tinker around in here and [I’ll] kind of still be thinking about it. I’m kind of always thinking about it, even if I’m not in there.”

It may look like he’s just rearranging his wood shop today, but even in that, there is a melody, somewhere. Before he was a full-time musician, William Elliott Whitmore worked as a carpenter. Now, he’s busying his hands building resistance in whatever way he can, trying to counteract all the “ugly things in the world.”

“I start to get a little discouraged when I read the papers or whatever, but you know, I try to just think ‘OK, we’re gonna make it through. We’re gonna make it,’ you know?” he said. “We’ll just do the best we can. We can all make change in these little ways, and one of them is to make art and music and things that are beautiful.”

“I do have faith that we’ll make it, even when the day seems dark. We’ll just stay ever vigilant.”

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