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William Elliott Whitmore's 'Field Songs' Celebrate Farmers

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William Elliott Whitmore's 'Field Songs' Celebrate Farmers

William Elliott Whitmore's 'Field Songs' Celebrate Farmers

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NEAL CONAN, host: William Elliott Whitmore has been called a folk singer, a roots troubadour, an heir to Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. He grew up on the fertile crescent - his words - between the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers, on a horse farm in Iowa. He lives there still, where he works out the rich dirt from underneath his fingernails on the frets of his banjo and guitar, and sings songs about pain, hard work and politics. Much of his new record is an ode to family farmers.

So, farmers, we want to hear from you. What do you listen to on your tractor? Who speaks to you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Will Whitmore's on tour in support of his new record, "Field Songs." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

WILLIAM ELLIOTT WHITMORE: Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And why don't we start with the title track, "Field Song," if you will?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIELD SONG")

WHITMORE: All right. (Singing) Write this down. Don't forget that the best of times ain't happen yet. The gilded age is long been done. So many lost when the West was won. Let's go to the field. We're going to do some work, spend our days digging in the dirt. We'll hope the rain follows the plow. And this piece of ground is a homestead now. This little piece of ground is a homestead now. Three square meals and a living wage reminds me of the good old days before the manifest destiny of the factory farm, when those cutthroats came and burned down the barn. Underneath the Black Locust tree, there's a shady place waiting for me to rest my bones and rest my mind. I'm going to rest right here when I die. Write this down. Don't forget that the best of times ain't happen yet.

CONAN: William Elliott Whitmore, with us here in Studio 3A, a song named "Field Song" from his new album called "Field Songs." And it's - family farms face so many challenges these days. That's more than just a positive song. That's an anthem.

WILLIAM ELLIOT WHITMORE: Well, that's kind words, kind words. Yeah, it's - I think about these things a lot, you know, being - I live in Iowa, as you said, right by the Mississippi there, some of the most fertile ground in the world and born and raised on a small farm and still living there. And these are things I think about a lot. And so, it's my little way to try to put a poetic spin on it.

CONAN: Who takes care of the farm when you're away?

WHITMORE: Well, my uncle is there, and my girlfriend is there, and my grandmother also lives there. And so, it's - I'm pretty fortunate. I got a lot of good family around, and they hold down the fort when I'm gone.

CONAN: Here's somebody writing, I think, from Iowa. Yes, from Blairstown, Iowa, Helen: What can America learn from "Field Songs"? And you may know, Helen.

WHITMORE: Oh, well, yes. I do, actually. We all know each other in Iowa. And, well, it's - as you said, it's sort of, you know, I kind of predict a return to the small farm. A lot of them got swallowed up by a lot of the big factory farms and that was just sort of the way of things. But I predict a paradigm shift going back the other way and sort of a more sustainable way of farming, something that's going to make the land a lot happier. And, yeah, like I said, I try to put these things to a melody and a little bit of poetry and hopefully convey that sentiment.

CONAN: We want to talk to farmers about what they listen to on their tractors, who speaks to them. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And George is on the line from LaFayette in New York.

GEORGE: Yeah. Hi. I'm - I work - I don't know if I'm actually - should mention the name, but I work with a small apple orchard right there, and mostly, I'm working for something that's able to keep me moving a little bit more. Some bands like Overkill or, you know, Megadeth, something that's got a pace to it. And then there's a local band a friend of mine is involved with, and I've listened a lot to his recordings, just a piece.

CONAN: What kind of farming do you do?

GEORGE: It's maintenance of the trees. I don't do too much of the picking, but it's in the in between, seasonal.

CONAN: And there - I doubt they're ripe yet.

GEORGE: No. Nope.

CONAN: OK. Well, George, good luck when picking season comes around.

GEORGE: Yep. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Austin, Austin with us from Elko in Nevada.

AUSTIN CALLER: Hey.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

CALLER: Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

CALLER: Well, I am a rancher or I work in a ranch out here in Elko, Nevada. And I actually listen to NPR about 10 hours a day from my tractor, which I'm sitting in right now. I love the show, and I love the programming. If I had to listen to, like, music radio stations all day long, I think I'd go insane from the commercial repetition. There's no way it would work out.

CONAN: Well, Austin, thanks vey much for the tribute there. We appreciate it. And be careful.

CALLER: I will be. I'm stopped right now.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we could get a song. You have something else ready for us?

WHITMORE: Yeah, I do.

Oh, we're switching to the banjo.

Yeah. You know, it used to be, tractors didn't have radios, so that guy is pretty lucky there to have a radio right in his tractor. That's - my old man would have really got a kick out of that.

CONAN: Like that old song from Nashville with a "Tapedeck in His Tractor."

WHITMORE: Yeah. There you go, there you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURY YOUR BURDENS IN THE GROUND")

WHITMORE: (Singing) If you've got burdens, don't carry them. Just bury them in the ground. If you're hurting, don't worry. I'll try to be around. How long can the nighttime last? How long can it be? These sharp-toothed creatures from the past gonna be the end of me. Ooh, let the sun come out. Feeling good wasn't good enough, and I bid farewell to this living hell. Some got it bad. Some got it worse. Some just can't let go no matter how it hurts. But no one, no one can say that we didn't do it the hard way. How long can the nighttime last? How long can it be? These sharp-tooth creatures coming fast, gonna be the death of me. Oh, let the sun come on. Feeling good wasn't good enough for us. You've got to bury your burdens down. You've got to bury your burdens down. You've got to bury your burdens down in the ground.

CONAN: William Elliott Whitmore. "Bury Your Burdens in the Ground," from his album "Field Songs" on Anti-Records. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Gary on the line, Gary with us from Alexandria in Minnesota.

GARY: Hi, Neal. I don't know if you guys can hear in the background, but I've got (unintelligible) here - just a second. It's an old 720 popping off from the background. Well, I usually have my headphones on. And most of the time, of course, I'm listening to you and NPR. But, you know, other times I'd switch it on to, you know, things like Greg Brown and the Old Crow Medicine Show. And one of the things I think is that, you know, I'm a relatively young farmer. I've been doing this now for 10 years, but - we got an organic vegetable farm.

And one of the things is that there's not many young farmers in, you know, rural Minnesota. And, you know, folks like Greg Brown, you know, they kind of put the culture back into agriculture and it really feeds our souls, you know...

CONAN: Well...

GARY: ...when we're trying to feed other people's souls, you know, bodies, you know?

CONAN: Well, those of us...

GARY: So I also want to thank your musician on that also.

CONAN: We also want to thank you for the opportunity to listen to that tractor popping away there in the background. Appreciate it.

GARY: You did hear it. Good.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much. We got three minutes left. What can you do for us?

WHITMORE: Oh, OK. Well, let's see if I can squeeze a song in, in three minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRY")

WHITMORE: (Singing) Well, the song of the blackbird is mighty clear on a morning such as this. And all those useless pains and fears, these things that I won't miss. Ooh. And the morning glories and the Queen Anne's lace, all baptized by the wind. These inspirations are my saving grace, these times we're living in. Ooh. Make a hard man humble. Make a proud woman hide her eyes from the light of day, when all the crops have withered and died and the soil has blown away. Ooh. And the ground is so dry. The river is on its hands and knees. And I hear that tune in the breeze.

The crow is calling and I hear him well up in the red bud tree. And in these stories that you've lived to tell, pass them down to me. And whisper the truth into your children's ears. Let them know. Let them understand. Let them hear. The song of the blackbird is mighty loud through the evening mist. The moon is up and it looks so proud to be looking down on a night, a night like this. Ooh.

CONAN: William Elliott Whitmore. His new album is called "Fields Songs" on Anti-Records. You can hear two more songs from the record on our website. He heads west from here towards Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis. We got this from Linda(ph) in Grand Forks: I, too, grew up on a small farm. My mom is still on the farm. I still love helping out, look forward to seeing you at the North Dakota Music Museum of Art in the couple weeks. This is NPR News. .

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