It would be easy to view William Elliott Whitmore as an anachronism. The 31-year-old singer is best known for perching on a stool, plucking chords on the banjo and bellowing out songs of soil, sin and uncertain salvation like a one-man chain gang. But his newest album and first for Anti- Records, Animals in the Dark, mixes his old-timey shots of rot-gut whiskey with contemporary political bitters and rhythmic splashes courtesy of the Shadow Government, an agit-rock band he's also touring with this winter. B-Sides checked in with Whitmore, who was back on his farm in Lee County, Iowa.
B-Sides: Give me a thumbnail sketch of Lee County.
William Elliott Whitmore: I like to call Lee County the Fertile Crescent of Iowa. It's at the southeastern tip, right where the Mississippi and the Des Moines River come together and form this little fertile crescent, like the Tigris and Euphrates. A lot of hills and woods and old growth timber. It's my spiritual center, for sure.
The themes on the new record are a little less rural than your earlier songs.
After the last the album, I honestly wasn't sure I would do another record. I felt I'd said everything I had to say. The reason I started writing songs years ago was to help me heal from certain losses and tragedies in my life. So I did that. I felt after those three records that I was back to being a happy guy. But then I looked around at the political climate and started feeling angry. A lot of the record was written when the Blackwater troops shot all those people in Iraq, and that police shooting in New York where they shot that unarmed kid 50 times. So I thought I had more to say. It was a challenge to write what you might call a protest song.
But the album is still autobiographical.
I tried to bring that in. I've been arrested, thrown in jail. I've had the cuffs put on my hands, been hassled by police, all for nonviolent things, if you know what I mean. That shit got to me. What kind of police state are we living in? I think I'm a good man. So the album is a narrative front to back. By the end, the character is out of jail and he's looking towards the future. Maybe a younger generation can fight the good fight, if they're not under too much surveillance. I feel bad for kids growing up on the streets with cameras on them all the time. It wasn't always an Orwellian nightmare.
The line from the song "Old Devils"— "It's true right now like it was back then" — could stand for your whole style.
I wanted the record to be more than just political, so the old devils aren't just politicians. You've met them before. They're all around. But they can't take away everything. They can't take away beauty and love and fucking cutting a rug.
You play the electric guitar again on [Dark].
For us singer-songwriters, we struggle with how to keep three or four chords new. So I bought an electric guitar. I recently did a tour with Billy Bragg, who plays solo with electric guitar, and I loved the sound of it. I know I have my style, but I want to make it as pleasing to the ear as possible, to hide the medicine in the candy.
— Roy Kasten
Son of a Coltrane
"I've always avoided situations that reeked of that nostalgic/exploitive, son-of-Coltrane thing," says saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. That's no easy task for the son of John, one of jazz's true legends — especially in a business that only seems able to sell new jazz by relating it to the past. But this mindset makes his seeming ambivalence about the Blue Note 7 project somewhat understandable.
The band — which also features trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, among others — recently released Mosaic. This CD reworks tunes from artists like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey in celebration of Blue Note Records' 70th anniversary. The tour expands the band's repertoire, but it remains an oldies show.
"When I got to New York, the bands I was playing in were all guys doing original music, and most of the tunes I'm playing on this tour are tunes I last played when I was in college," says Coltrane with a laugh. (One exception is Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge," which Coltrane previously recorded on his debut CD as a leader, 1998's Moving Pictures.) Still, he understands why jazz fans respond so rapturously to history-minded albums and performances: "There's nothing wrong with sitting down, paying for something and knowing exactly what to expect and getting it."
But in his solo career, Coltrane has deliberately turned his back on that sort of thing. Aside from working on his mother Alice Coltrane's 2004 comeback album, Translinear Light, and recording two of his father's lesser-known tunes on 2002's Mad 6, he's avoided making family connections — even musical ones — explicit. There is no Ravi Coltrane Plays John Coltrane album out there, and there likely never will be.
"If an audience only wants something they've heard before, that can be a drag for cats who are trying to extend a little bit and say, 'Look, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel,'" he says. "'I'm not trying to get up here and completely freak you out, but I'm trying to do something that's relevant for me as a musician, and if it's something that's kind of unique and different for me, maybe it'll be unique and different for you, and that won't be such a bad thing.'"
But Mosaic — which reunited Coltrane with Payton, whom he played with in Elvin Jones' band in the early 1990s, as well as with former sessionmates Nash and Washington — is a strong album that will easily outlast the corporate self-celebration that spawned it. The saxophonist admits as much when he says, "Somebody might say, 'I have this idea and it's gonna involve this [person] and this [person] and this [person],' and I might say, I don't like your idea, but this person'll be involved. So sometimes, if there's a musical reason for doing those types of gigs, regardless of the names and all that stuff, then the value is there."
— Phil Freeman