Here, in a cozy, one-room cabin that he built, William Elliott Whitmore stands surrounded by homemade shelves that teem with books and LPs, holding a cup of coffee and looking out a picture window that overlooks the paddock where his horse, Jed, and his mule, Lucky 13, butt heads and snort in the wild grasses.
Within the hour, he’ll be out feeding his chickens, or pitching in to help with chores at Grandma Whitmore’s beautiful old farmhouse not 200 feet away. She ever is the matriarch and family historian around here, with a background as colorful as a character in a Howard Hawks movie.
“There’s a barn around here that was built in 1866 by a long-ago relative on my mom’s side with lumber that he floated down the Mississippi himself,” Whitmore says via phone from his Iowa roost during a lengthy shit-shooting session. We were supposed to meet in person, but a blizzard left him snowed in for nearly a week.
“It might be the oldest building in the county still standing,” he says. “Everywhere I look, there are fingerprints of my forebears. This area is my spiritual center. I’m just fortunate to be its steward during my time here on Earth. It will be here forever; I’m just passing through.”
This probably sounds idyllic if you’re one of this country’s innumerable city dwellers, looking through your kitchen windows at overstuffed dumpsters, brick walls, and parked cars, or a suburbanite surveying your property while a familiar set of golden arches looms large on the horizon, keeping constant watch over a buzzing hive of interstates, strip malls, and outlet stores. And in a very real sense, it is. Like your dad always told you growing up, there’s something to be said for a life of hard work.
But Whitmore didn’t grow up much different than the rest of us, spending his afternoons in town with his cousin and his brother, skateboarding and raising hell while Black Flag and Public Enemy cassettes played in the background.
On that same stretch of road where the local cops used to tell them to “move it along,” there’s now a tattoo parlor run by a friend of the family. Here, everybody is family.
And though the meeting places of rural Iowa might now be the tattoo parlor or the sports bar up the road, that mythic American Mayberry sense of knowing your fellow man and looking out for your neighbor is alive and well here — something put to the test this past summer when the whole town came together to save the local watering hole from the swiftly encroaching floodwaters of North America’s biggest river.
But don’t let him fool you. Though a farm-boy heart beats proudly in his chest, William Elliott Whitmore has toured the world with nothing more than a banjo and a guitar for company. He learned French for an enthusiastic crowd in Paris, and has traveled from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to London, making all the stops between.
“I remember playing my first show in Rome,” he says. “I’d never been to Italy. As kind of an icebreaker, I told the crowd how I’d recently played a show in Rome, Georgia, which was this cool little town where I’d been booked at an abandoned train depot that everybody said was haunted. They got a kick out of that.”