William Elliott Whitmore is 40, but he has always sounded like a much older man, with a deep, soulful voice that gives everything he sings a certain gravitas. Think Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan, or most of all, Johnny Cash at his most apocalyptic. If Whitmore sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” you’d still worry, and probably be unhappy. I first heard Whitmore in 2006, opening for Lucero, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and was immediately transfixed by his timeless voice, dark songs, austere banjo, guitar and foot stomping accompaniment, and intense performance.
Born and raised on a 150-acre farm in southeastern Iowa, which he inherited from his parents and still owns, Whitmore grew up singing and playing guitar and banjo, with musical influences that started with country and moved toward punk as he got older. At a certain point, though, Whitmore realized that he needed to focus on the folky, rustic, blues music that he grew up on–but with a punk edge.
So when Bloodshot Records released Kilonova, an album of covers of (mostly) lesser known songs from many musical eras, the question was, how would such a distinctive artist put his stamp on this block of diverse songs? “Diverse” barely begins to tell the story–artists range from Dock Boggs, to Johnny Cash, to the Magnetic Fields to Bad Religion.
In short, the answer is, remarkably well.
There can be no doubt that Whitmore feels an affinity for Johnny Cash, born on a farm in Arkansas about 600 miles almost due south from his own. The deep voice, the concern for the lives of ordinary people, and the reverence for American roots music clearly bind these two musicians, so it is fitting that Whitmore covers two songs popularized by Cash, one a cover, and one an original. But Cash’s influence is all over Kilonova, whether intentionally or otherwise, and many of its covers would not have sounded out of place on one of Cash’s great American albums.
Whitmore would be a good fit on the Cover Me staff (and we’ve actually discussed earlier versions of two of the covers on Kilonova here). His motivation to do an album of covers came from the discovery that all cover lovers make at some point after hearing a new version of a song that you know and love:
it was a revelation that a great song can be played in many different ways. Seems obvious now, but as a ten year old it was helping to shape my way of thinking of music. As a thing to be passed around and shared.
That feeds into the unusual album title–a kilonova is an astronomical event when two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole merge into each other, thus creating something new and different, while retaining the elements of the original. This sense of creation by merger is also symbolized by the album cover, a photo of Whitmore’s great-grandparents. In the ten covers on Kilonova, Whitmore’s creates something novel by, usually, simplifying the arrangements and slowing down the tempos of the originals, without eliminating whatever drew him to the song in the first place.
This is clearly evident in the first cover, of Magnetic Fields’ 1994 song “Fear of Trains.” The song’s tempo and Stephin Merritt’s deadpan delivery and slight detachment pegs this as an indie-rocker, although one with some country and folk influences. It is a meditation on the oppression of Native Americans and other marginalized people, symbolized by the advancing of the railroads, which is transformed by Whitmore into a true Americana song. Whitmore, singing in a higher register than usual and accompanying himself only on guitar, goes all in on the message of the song, which is one that he probably listened to in high school, without a shred of ironic detachment.
Whitmore returns to his roots with the next track, covering Harlan Howard’s early 1960s country lament about bad times, “Busted,” made famous by Johnny Cash, who performed it as a slow dirge. Ray Charles’ version, not surprisingly, added soul, but somehow tempered Cash’s depression with a sense of amusement about how circumstances conspired against him. Whitmore splits the difference, playing the song at a faster tempo than Cash, and with a reserved humor that cuts the desperation. (You can see Cash and Charles do a little of the song here, with Cash getting caught up in Charles’ exuberance).
Spinning the genre wheel again, the next track is Bad Religion’s 1993 pop-punk rocker, “Don’t Pray on Me,” with an anti-religious message that perfectly fits their name, cleverly exploiting the fact that “pray” and “prey” are homonyms. What Whitmore, who says that he was raised without religion, does here, stripping the song down to only his voice and banjo, is to reveal that Brett Gurewitz may have unwittingly (or not) written a classic talking blues and just played it fast. Whitmore released a different version of this song back in 2010 on a Bad Religion tribute curated by MySpace and Spin, in which he accompanied himself on guitar, giving the song a somewhat warmer feel.
Following up a punk pop song from the ’90s is a slow ZZ Top ballad from the ’70s, “Hot Blue and Righteous,” from Tres Hombres, the band’s commercial breakthrough album best known for the rocking “La Grange.” The cover is pretty faithful to the original, although Jenny Hoyston’s trumpet replaces a Billy Gibbons guitar solo, and she contributes some background vocals.
A Cash original, “Five Feet High and Rising,” is up next. It is a surprisingly upbeat ballad based on Cash’s own childhood experiences sung from the perspective of a child seeking his parents’ reassurance as flood waters gradually rise to the titular level. Whitmore, who had a song, “Lee County Flood” on his 2006 album Song of The Blackbird, clearly understood what Cash was trying to say (he has been quoted as saying that “Five Feet High and Rising” “might be the most perfect song ever written”), and delivers a faithful, heartfelt cover, his voice, like Cash’s, modulating higher with the water level.
Whitmore switches things up again, covering Bill Withers’ 1971 soul classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which featured the great Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Al Jackson, Jr. on drums and, yes, Stephen Stills on guitar–with Booker T. Jones producing and arranging the strings. Inspired by the movie Days of Wine and Roses, Withers wrote this heartbreaking song of lost love while working in a factory making toilet seats for 747 airplanes, and it hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. If anything, Whitmore’s version is even sadder, as he slows the song down, with his guitar–the opening riff strangely reminiscent of the beginning of Cash’s great cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”– backed by bass and drums—and no strings. Where Withers’ voice was smooth and soulful, Whitmore’s aches.
Next up is maybe the most obscure song on the album, 1997’s “One Glass at a Time” by Bay Area band Red Meat, which, nevertheless, was made up mostly of Midwesterners, including two of Whitmore’s fellow Iowans. The original sounds like an unearthed Bakersfield sound classic, with pedal steel guitar and sad lyrics about lost love and, of course, drinking. Whitmore pares away everything except for the guitar and voice, and covers the song the way Johnny Cash might have, slower, sadder, and with more depth of feeling.
“Run Johnny Run,” a satirical song from 1959 about a moonshiner captured by Federal troops and brought to Washington to make moonshine for the president, getting rich in the process, before he runs away, still owing taxes, is not the most famous song Jimmy Driftwood (born James Corbitt Morris) wrote–that would be “Battle of New Orleans,” a huge hit for Johnny Horton–but it was one of about 6,000 songs he wrote, both during and after his career as a school teacher and principal. He may well be the only member of the Opry who was ever asked to perform for Nikita Khrushchev. Driftwood played a homemade guitar throughout his career–its neck was made from a fence rail, its sides from an old ox yoke, and the head and bottom from the headboard of his grandmother’s bed. His version of “Run Johnny Run” features guitar and jew’s harp, and plays up the incongruity of the moonshiner’s situation. Whitmore discovered the song by listening to grandfather’s record collection. His cover features only banjo, and Whitmore’s voice, which while not completely humorless, seems to take things more seriously than the original.
Whitmore heads back even further for his next song, Dock Boggs’ 1927 “Country Blues.” The classic original version is about rambling and gambling and surviving hard times, based (as many folk songs are) on older songs. Boggs accompanies himself on banjo and it is eerie and haunting, due in large part to its unusual harmonic structure. This strangeness was toned down somewhat when Boggs recorded the song for Folkways Records in 1964, though. Oddly, Whitmore, who regularly backs himself on the banjo, decided to cover this song a capella, layering some gospel on top of the original’s blues.
Kilonova ends with the oddest song of the bunch, Captain Beefheart’s “Bat Chain Puller,” from 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Apparently influenced by the sound of windshield wipers, this complex song has so much going on, it is hard to know where to start. In addition to the steady wiper beat, groups of instruments play different things, in odd rhythms, in the left and right channels, and occasional bursts of synthesized noise and horns break through across both, while Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) declaims the oblique lyrics, in his gruff drawl, over everything. Whitmore recreates the chaos, using only a second electric guitarist, Joel Anderson, and a saxophone, played by Kurt Orin, who stand in for the many more musicians on the original, and Whitmore’s stentorian vocals are reminiscent of Van Vliet’s, without the drawl.
If you appreciate Whitmore’s sound, Kilonova is a deeply personal document illuminating how his influences have led him to create his distinctive music. Kilonova stands on its own, and also represents a gateway into Whitmore’s own music, which is both timeless and fresh at the same time.
You can buy Kilonova at Amazon.