A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see William Elliot Whitmore in an intimate setting of about 40 people. The storyteller passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels, asked for requests and cracked jokes. On Oct. 7 at Bottom Lounge, even though the crowd was much bigger, Whitmore treated it the same way. Fans bought the Iowa farmer shots of whiskey and beer as he told stories of run-ins with Public Enemy and Texas police officers.
Whitmore’s shows are always intimate. He’s got a no-frills, laid-back attitude that is reflected in his performances. Will Whitmore is a heart-on-his-sleeve type of guy. His minimalistic tone doesn’t need any glitz because his storytelling is unlike most. Wearing a white button down shirt and black fedora, Whitmore’s charm is equally as unique. His performances are well-suited for a breezy summer, lying in the grass, because his music just makes you want to sit down and take it all in. Whitmore sat in a stool with his banjo and guitar close-at-hand.
The lights shined from behind the stage atop a sleek, black backdrop, and Whitmore’s soulful voice filled the venue. He kicked off the show with “Dry,” the first track from 2006’s Song of the Blackbird. Whitmore played songs new and old, and took requests from the audience including a few covers. He spanned almost his entire discography, even playing tragic song “Pine Box” from his 2003 debut album Hymns for the Hopeless. This track can stop anyone in their paths once they listen to the lyrics. His growl is rigid in tunes like “Johnny Law,” but his sincerity in “Pine Box” can make anyone tear up. As he sang, “the river would overflow if only I could trade a raindrop for every tear,” the crowd grew increasingly silent. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Whitmore seemed to be reliving a tragedy right on stage.
He wiped his face with his red bandana, and continued the night with drinking and laughs. Whitmore told the audience that he normally doesn’t have a long set, so he was going to try to fit in everyone’s favorites, and seemingly did. Although he did admit to have forgotten a few deep cuts he wrote 15 years ago requested by fans. He seemed humbled at the fact that anyone was aware of the tracks, and in his deep, country-tinged voice he apologized. But he played fan favorites like “Hell or High Water,” “Lift my Jug,” “Take it on the Chin” and “Diggin’ My Grave.”
The crowd sang along, tapped their toes and enjoyed drinking along with Will. He puts on a show that everyone is a part of, and he thanked the audience for taking part in what he loves to do again and again. No matter the setting, big or small, Whitmore treats it as he is welcoming everyone into his home and into his life.