I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Sam Gleaves last year when a mutual friend introduced me to his music, and I was immediately struck by Sam’s old-time banjo picking and the distinctive, Appalachian Mountain quiver in his voice.
A native of Wytheville, Virginia, Sam – who can play just about anything with strings – is yet another up and coming young voice in old-time Appalachian music, a genre (rightly or wrongly) most often associated with older generations than twenty-somethings.
A particularly telling part of Sam’s story is that he is a musician who happens to be gay. In and of itself, such a detail isn’t even newsworthy. In this day and age, considering the continually advancing acceptance of members of the LGBT community within society at large, the need to mention it could be waved away as passe’, but the notion resonated with me because of Sam’s membership within the world of players and appreciators of old-time music.
At best, old-time music represents a niche in the greater world of what we consider Americana music. A wonderful, beautiful niche, but a niche nonetheless, and one often confined to the mountains of Appalachia, a region not exactly known for its progressive thinking on social issues.
So, when I listened to Sam’s new record, Ain’t We Brothers, and I heard the stories therein, his backstory became of specific interest to me, as Sam’s is a voice that I believe to brand new, and particularly valuable, in contemporary old-time music.
Sam tells stories that have been heard before – but not heard before – within this music.
I recently caught up with Sam to chat about the new record, upon which he is joined by the likes of Tim O’Brien and Laurie Lewis, the real life inspiration for the title track of his new record, and favorite Christmas traditions.
BRO – We are featuring “Ain’t We Brothers” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
SG – “Ain’t We Brothers” is a true story. The song is written from the perspective of Sam Williams, a West Virginia coal miner who stood up against the discrimination he faced as a gay man in the mines. Sam’s fellow miners insulted him and deliberately didn’t take required safety measures because they found out his partner was another man. Sam responded by speaking out about his experience and winning a lawsuit against the coal company. The song explores what it really means to be a man, and I think Sam Williams’ honesty and integrity certainly make him a good man. I enjoyed meeting Sam and his partner, Burley, at their home in West Virginia. They’re very welcoming, fun folks.
BRO – Any trepidation in delving into your own personal life on the record, considering that many would call the old time listening audience pretty conservative?
SG – I wouldn’t say trepidation. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a family where I never had to be afraid or ashamed of expressing my true self. I’m very grateful to my parents, grandparents, and brother for that. I do hope that listeners consider the music first and then look to my identity as a gay musician. And I think the old time and traditional music audience is stretching its edges and welcoming more diversity now than ever. We still have a lot of work to do to make the community more inclusive, but I think it’s becoming more and more possible.
BRO – I’m a big Tim O’Brien fan. What was it like getting to sing with him?
SG – Tim is a gentleman, a genuinely nice person. He came in to sing on our session in Nashville and, after singing through the song a few times, went into the booth and cut a beautiful harmony part. And he drank black coffee the whole time – what a pro! I have always loved Tim’s voice and his progressive musical sense. Tim was also very generous in spending the afternoon with us to appear in a music video, which we look forward to releasing soon.
BRO – You are a young man playing what many consider to be an old man’s music. How do you get your music to resonate with younger people?
SG – Growing up in Southwest Virginia, I was always playing music with my peers, people in their teens and twenties who love this music. That’s one of the real gifts of this music, the opportunity to learn from older generations and befriend all kinds of people through it. I think one thing that appeals to young people is the genuineness of country music, the profound things spoken in everyday language.
BRO – The Christmas season is upon us. Favorite holiday tradition?
SG – Cooking. Big Southern meals. I love eating. I also try to sneak up on my dad, mom, and grandma and steal their kitchen secrets. My friend Ethan Hamblin, with whom I perform in a duo called The Down Home Divas, says that life is all about The Three Fs – food, fun, and fellowship. I agree!
Sam Gleaves will be involved in a couple very cool shows this weekend. On Friday, December 11th, Sam will be accompanying writer Jason Howard during a reading of his work at the Woodford County Public Library in Versailles, Kentucky. The following day, Sam will head to Washington, D.C., to join folk legend Si Kahn for a show at Seekers Church.
For more information on Sam Gleaves, point your browser right here.