This seems a very zen attitude for someone who is known for his touring with hardcore punk bands as well as an expressed love for hip-hop and metal. Whitmore’s early experiences of D.C. punk like Minor Threat and Fugazi, as well as more classic staples like The Clash and The Ramones, has left an indelible mark on this farm boy’s soul. “I really liked the feeling they put forth while expressing their anger and their views on the world,” he says. “I always aspire to do my style of music, which is more folk-based, with a little bit of that punk attitude. I thought a healthy dose of that could help me write. Like we said, we want to be influenced by people but we don’t want to rip them off! But yeah, I’ve been a fan of punk music since my teens and it’s hard to discover a band like The Clash and not think, how can I take this and use it in my life as well?”
We get to talking about Frank Turner, another man known for his stark modern folk songs. Turner has talked about the element of surprise that goes with writing more simple songs and the ability to truly affect people with something as small as a three-chord song. Whitmore feels much the same way. “That’s a very good point,” he says. “As he said, you can surprise people by taking all the noise away and all the shouting away and strip it down to just the words and the music. If you can affect someone like that, then you’ve really done something. It’s good to have that mix, that dynamic of loud and quiet. Sometimes that quiet stuff can be just as punk.”
With Whitmore treading a traditional path for over ten years, a path sketched out years ago by people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, his country dues are well paid. He has managed to eschew any hint of the glitz and shmaltz that infects the mainstream, Nashville factory version of country. Whitmore is philosophical about that side of the industry though, especially when it comes to the grand dame of it all, Dolly Parton. “Yeah, she’s one of the pros!” he says, excitedly. “She knows how to entertain an audience. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to do that. It’s one thing to write songs and sing them but can you be entertaining as well if someone has paid to see you. Not everyone is a born entertainer. You might be a good writer but you won’t be interesting to watch or whatever. Whatever the crowd needs, she can provide. She’s funny, she can play sad songs but she can make you laugh too.”
As ever, he finds something to love within her music and tries to learn from it. “She is a true original,” he says. “I try to grasp onto that as well, how to make an audience feel certain things, no matter what kind of music you’re playing. For someone like me, based in country and folk, she is definitely a hero of mine. She’s written hundreds of great songs. She’s a person I look up to because she came from nothing and I come from a very poor background. There was a lot of love and we had what we needed but she’s a person who came from that and rose up to be one of the biggest stars in the world. I really admire her for that. You get the impression she’s a sweet person.”
If you needed yet more proof of Whitmore’s country credentials, the man has recently started brewing his own beer. It doesn’t come any more country than that. “I just got into it in the last few years, and I’m definitely not an expert yet! I used to just drink the crummiest beer, the cheapest, whatever was around but the older I get, the more I like really good tasting beer. I’m a little more discerning with my beer taste! Me and my cousin, who records all my records, we like to have another project to do besides music so when you’re sick of the studio you can get out and do something different. During this last record, we decided that brewing beer was going to be our project. It’s really fun and you get to reap the rewards and maybe make a flavour you’ve never tasted before.”
Again, Whitmore finds the thread that seemingly runs through all his thoughts and brings it all back to the music. “It’s like a metaphor for making music. Like, there’s a million beer recipes but can you make something that is just a little different from everyone else? This past spring, in my garden, I planted some hops. So we used a little of my home grown hops in a batch. It kind of helps you get more in touch with what you’re drinking, you see the process what it takes to make this and I like that. It all matters, letting it go for one more day or adding such and such a spice… It all matters. Like I said, it’s like music. There’s nothing new under the sun but if you can put your own twist on it, then you’ve got something.”
William Elliott Whitmore plays The Sugar Club on Saturday 19th November.