This Iowa native passed through town on Valentine's Day last year, and his country death songs cut through its pink patina of hearts 'n' flowers like turpentine. He's too late to rescue us from the goopiest day of the year this time around, but he's got a new album in tow, so I forgive him: Ashes to Dust (Southern), his second disc, comes out February 21. He sings in a hoarse, cracked drawl, strums an acoustic guitar or picks a banjo, and sometimes provides his own percussion by stamping his foot; the occasional overdub of slide guitar or tambourine feels superfluous, like a fresh coat of paint on a gallows. But despite the amount of time he spends haunting death's door in his songs ("Diggin' My Grave," "The Buzzards Won't Cry"), Whitmore's no po-faced reconstructionist--on Southern's Web site he tips his hand with a quote from Beckett ("When you're up to your neck in shit, the only thing left to do is sing"). Ashes to Dust is less hillbilly and more Delta than his 2003 debut, Hymns for the Hopeless, sitting somewhere between the mellifluousness of Mississippi John Hurt and the fire and brimstone of Blind Willie Johnson--but Whitmore doesn't seem to share his predecessors' confidence about the afterlife. I get the feeling he won't give a shit if nobody sees that his grave is kept clean. Tight Phantomz and Hanalei open. Thu 2/17, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499, $8.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Denise Guerin.