William Elliott Whitmore – Song of the Blackbird

William Elliott Whitmore
Song of the Blackbird

It has taken me weeks to feel comfortable approaching a review of William Elliott Whitmore’s third album on Southern Records, Song of the Blackbird. While some music reviewers face big challenges with discs they can’t stand, for me it’s the albums I love most that present the most difficulty. The problem lies in liking an album so much that I fear I cannot possibly do it justice – that I won’t convey why something is so good that everyone should take a listen or that I’ll miss something crucial. Lucky for me, William Elliott Whitmore seems to be an uncomplicated guy.

I’ll spare you the same tired comparisons Whitmore reviews normally contain in reference to his age, ethnicity, and upbringing. This guy plays simple Americana, but you can call it folk, blues, country or whatever label fits. William’s got a little bit of everything on Song of the Blackbird, though this time Whitmore’s banjo plucking and rusty vocals are accompanied by drums (John Crawford) and piano/organ (Dave Zollo).

Fans of Whitmore’s previous albums, Hymns for the Hopeless and Ashes to Dust, will already be familiar with the misery and bleakness of many of his tunes. Song of the Blackbird isn’t so different but the overall feeling of hope and optimism is laying right on the cusp waiting to shine. It wouldn’t surprise me if William Elliott Whitmore’s next album were packed full of shiny, happy, completely in love with the world songs.

The nine tracks on Song of the Blackbird do follow a deliberate water theme including drought, rain, and flooding. Opener “Dry” sets the scene of a devastating drought that has brought farmers and their families to their knees with desperation. While “One Man’s Shame” seems to be an ode to salt-of-the-earth people everywhere who somehow manage to find strength in the midst of some of life’s worst struggles. “And Then the Rains Came.” This instrumental portrays exactly what the title implies – clouds rolling in, the water beginning to fall, and the scorched earth soaking up the drops before “Lee County Flood” hits with plenty of upbeat banjo.

“The Chariot” is Whitmore’s take on “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” but in his version the chariot couldn’t carry him home because “that circle was broke before I could speak and now all my faith is gone.” This moving song is easily one of my favorite William Elliott Whitmore tunes to date – simply moving and fills a void many of us, myself included, often feel. “Red Buds” is a slow burner that makes me homesick for the more rural area I grew up in.

Although it appears Song of the Blackbird was the last album William Elliott Whitmore recorded for Southern Records, he’s set a solid foundation for more great things to come and Southern has really helped give Whitmore’s music the exposure it deserves. Although I would normally recommend an album like Song of the Blackbird to music lovers who are normally interested in folk, Americana, and the like, Whitmore’s talent extends far beyond the genres he’s most often associated with. Touring with bands like Clutch and having fans of “harder” music dig should be the only testament you need.