From punk roots in Iowa farmland, singer/songwriter re-kindles spirit 

It took almost a decade, but at 31, William Elliott Whitmore is finally a free man.

While the Iowa farmer turned musician has always loved to sing, he didn't see it as a future so much as a mission. With the completion of his musical trilogy " 2003's "Hymns for the Hopeless," 2005's "Ashes to Dust," and 2006's "Song of the Blackbird" " Whitmore thought he'd be finished.

"I thought, 'I'll just plant my garden and be a carpenter,'" he said from his farm in Lee County, Iowa. "I'd said what I had to say. I never wanted to write just for the sake of writing. It turns out I had a lot more to say."

Whitmore gets to speak his mind with his recent release, the politically tinged "Animals in the Dark." The album traces the course the country's taken the last eight years, on tracks like the leader-bashing "Old Devils"; the exultant, forefather-hailing "Hard Times"; and the martial war cry of "Mutiny." Whitmore's distinctive gospel-blues howl sounds weathered enough to belong to a man twice his age, lending a timeless element that dovetails nicely with his banjo-wielding, country-blues Americana.

While his previous albums were more personal and inward, "Animals" owes its political fury to Whitmore's punk-rock roots. He discovered Thrasher magazine as a teenager, and cited the skateboarding publication as "a window into an outside world I didn't know existed," which compelled a young Whitmore to drive the tractor to a nearby town in search of a slab of pavement on which to skate. Through skateboarding, he discovered bands like the Minutemen and Bad Religion " groups with ideas and spirits that deeply impacted him and connected to the blues music on which Whitmore grew up.

"It's just a sped-up version on electric guitars. When done correctly, it's expressing the same sentiments the blues was " so it wasn't that far of a leap," he said.

Whitmore always admired great voices like Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Mavis Staples, and adopted many of their musical mannerisms. But just as much vocal credit goes to Camels and the DIY punk touring he cut his teeth on, where he screamed to compensate for lack of amplification or a backing band.

"Singing every day and smoking a lot, I developed this textured thing," he said. "I'm still not a very good guitar player of banjo player. My voice is my main asset; it's all I got. I try to use it for good and not evil."

Whitmore might have remained a carpenter and never made music had tragedy not cut a swath through his family when he was in his late teens. Turning to music for solace, he began composing songs to express his feelings of loss, eventually conceiving an autobiographical, three-part story to express and exorcise his emotions.

"It was basically how I dealt with all that stuff instead of jumping off a bridge," he said. "Finishing the album cycle was cathartic. It felt good to have those things off my chest. That's one of the beauties of music: It can be a very healing thing "¦ I feel like I'm a pretty happy guy these days, and I have music to thank for that." "Chris Parker

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