There is a definite fetish with American roots music today. Not only in the popular realm, with the recent frenzy produced over the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and Emmy Lou Harris’ new recording, but also in independent music. William Elliott Whitmore is nothing if not rootsy. He doesn’t have the Flannery O’Conner meets Nick Cave gothic stoicism of 16 Horsepower or the indie sensibilities of Blanche, but he feels much more authentic than either.
His boozy drawl crawls straight from the south, from his home on a horse ranch along the banks of the Mississippi. It is so spiritually laden, a hoarse cry for God, that it would sound equally in place on a scratchy southern gospel 78. Whitmore’s music also has the same stripped down verve of that early music. Most of it is just vocals and guitar with a bit of foot tapping, hand clapping or tambourine to provide a rhythm.
Whitmore sounds like he has seen the dirtiest, roughest part of the world. Like many of the roots throwbacks recording today, Whitmore has a sense of the melancholic. While it could be compared to a southern folk spiritual, songs like “The Day the End Finally Came” evoke the wrath of a mighty God, impersonal and fiery, breathing down the neck of the sinner. Most of the songs titles are equally imbued with southern gothic: “Diggin’ My Grave,” “The Buzzards Won’t Cry,” “Sorest of Eyes.”
What more should one expect from an album titled Ashes to Dust? It is refreshing in a world where the general feel is a euphoria of denial to hear songs that stare death in the face. And Whitmore acknowledges that all of humanity is to blame for this cold world on a personal level: “I’m digging my grave, I’m digging my grave / My road to hell is surely paved with all the love I never gave.”
But, not unlike life itself, there is always some joy to be found. On this album it comes in the form of the foot-stomping reverie “Lift My Jug (song for Hub Cale).” The song, so I read, is inspired by the first true hobo Whitmore ever met, a man of the railway and of the night sky. The song is an ode to human perseverance (and the alcoholic beverages that aid our plight) and its optimism in the face of adversity is enough to make Sisyphus take heart. Ashes to Dust is a collection of hymns to the human spirit, crushed and bedraggled as it is.