Ben Gilmer sings of Southwest Virginia’s hard times and humble goodness on his new record.
I’m a sucker for the sights, aromas, and sounds of a good county fair.
Can anything top the smell of funnel cakes frying, the stunning collection of bad tattoos on proud display, or the adrenaline rush that comes from entrusting one’s life to a rickety thrill ride hastily constructed by a carny crew whose qualifications are dubious at best?
Singer/songwriter Ben Gilmer must share my love of all things related to the midway, as the Virginia native titled his recently released record Russell County Fair.
Gilmer, born and raised on a farm in Russell County, has since moved on to West Virginia after a stint in Seattle. Regardless of where he has called home, Gilmer has continued to write songs that echo with the musical traditions of his native Appalachian Mountains. Tales of hard times, bad luck, and the future of a region beset by the struggles of its past abound in his writing and on this new record.
I recently caught up with Ben to chat about the future of Southwest Virginia, growing up in a musical family, and country fair fare.
BRO – Did you come from one of those Southwest Virginia families where everyone played something with strings?
BG – Pretty much. My Paw on my dad’s side played about everything with strings, his children played in a family band called Jenny & The Gentlemen, and a lot of us grandchildren play. My Aunt Ann on my mom’s side was one of my biggest musical influences. She has done a good bit of studio work through the years and is just an all around killer musician. Both sides of my family still have jam sessions at family gatherings at least a few times a year.
BRO – How did growing up in Southwest Virginia influence you as a musician?
BG – My childhood in Southwest Virginia was full of bluegrass, country, gospel, and Southern rock music. It’s probably not too hard to hear that background in the songs that I write. And I grew up around a lot of humble, hardworking, honest, and witty Southwest Virginians. I generally aspire to embody those qualities in my songwriting, even if I sometimes fall short.
BRO – We are featuring “Tastes Like Hard Love” on this month’s Trail Mix. Should everyone, at some point, get a little taste of hard love?
BG – I think everyone experiences hard love. I guess we need to know how it tastes in order to recognize and appreciate the sweet stuff when it shows up.
BRO – Southwest Virginia has faced some tough times recently. Where do you think the region goes from here?
BG – I believe it is really up to us to determine where we go from here. Even if it sucks, this means accepting no single person, policy, or industry is going to save or bury us. A good friend of mine likes to say that there isn’t going to be a silver bullet in Central Appalachia, but there sure could be a lot of silver BBs. I am hopeful that we can embrace and learn from our past, honor our traditions, build on our assets, and keep our eyes focused on the present and future.
BRO – What’s your go to fair food?
BG – No question – a big pork bbq sandwich from my Uncle David’s Cliffside Grille booth. This is the same uncle that dressed up as Elvis and painted his car pink for his demolition derby debut at the Russell County Fair. Don’t I have the coolest family ever?
You can track down more information on Ben Gilmer by surfing over to his website. His touring schedule is a bit quiet right now, but shows will be picking up soon. In the meantime, be sure to peruse the tracks from Russell County Fair.
Also, make sure you take a listen to “Tastes Like Hard Love” on this month’s Trail Mix.