Life Lessons From William Elliott Whitmore

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William Elliott Whitmore, due May 15 at the Bluebird Theatre, is always finding ways to impart lessons that have been passed down to him.

Many years ago, at a show at the Larimer Lounge, before he played “Lift My Jug,” he told the audience that a homeless man named Hub Cale, who lived outside of his hometown, inspired the song. Whitmore, and his father, used to give the man a ride into town and, he said his father took the opportunity to teach him a lesson about not judging the tattered Cale by his appearance but by the quality of his character. Cale, his father said, was a good man and truly free. Later on that night, Whitmore taught a more light-hearted lesson about who wins in a fight between a peacock and a turkey.

When I call Whitmore on the phone, he is in the middle of gardening at his family farm in Lee County, Iowa, and already imparting lessons.

“You gotta plant that cold weather stuff in the day,” he says. “That stuff doesn’t mind a little cold weather at night. I just get my hands in the dirt and move on, I can’t wait for this time of year. I was like an animal needing to take my head of the hole.”

I remind Whitmore of the night he taught me about Hub Cale and ask him to tell me what other lessons are contained on his most recent album, Radium Death, released in March on ANTI Records. 

Coping with loss: "The song 'Healing to Do' was inspired by my grandma. She had a stroke couple of years ago, and we didn’t want her to be in nursing home, so we would take shifts being there and looking after her - she was such a great woman. When it was my turn to be over there, I would write a lot of these songs at her home.

She taught me that, life is hard, but even when things are tough like that, I know that I’m going to make it and survive. "

Industrialization and over-population:  "I’m a lover of the lands and I respect them. People take the tops of mountains to dig the coal out of them and people dump pollution in my rivers. I feel like the people who do that might as well burn down a church — you may as well paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The song “Civilizations” is about how empires like Rome thought they would last forever and the American government thinks it’ll be on top forever. That’s not true if they keep doing things like this."

Family values (on the song “Trouble in Your Heart”): "There are things that haunt you and sometimes you have to lay those down, move on and get rid of that trouble in your heart. My uncle always says 'don’t let ‘em eat ya.' He’s always been a big influence on my life. It just means 'don’t let ‘em get the best of you.' I feel lucky that I have a lot of good family; I soak up those things when I hear them. "

Seizing the day (on the song “Ain’t Gone Yet”): "We’re all gonna be gone some day but we still have some living to do. We’ve got some parties to go to, some beer to make and some gardens to tend to - we’ll be gone someday but not yet. I don’t believe in heaven or hell so, within this life, let’s make the most of it."

Finding time for fun (on the song “South Lee County Brew”): "Many years ago, the elders of my tribe taught me how to make moonshine. I loved it right away because it was an outlaw thing. Sometimes you just gotta drink a little moonshine and kick your shoes off. That’s a part of life too."

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