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The Music Of A Struggle: Sam Gleaves' Traditional Revolution

Sam Gleaves
Susi Lawson
Courtesy of the artist

Last year, the book Rednecks, Queers & Country Music — a significant, if overlooked work by scholar Nadine Hubbs — drove home just how powerful and pervasive outsider assumptions about the backwardness of rural identities and downhome music can be. Too often, we'll seize on a figure like Kim Davis — the devoutly religious Kentucky county clerk who'd rather be marched down to the jailhouse than issue a marriage license to a gay couple — to confirm our citified stereotypes rather than make room in our awareness for someone as complex as Sam Gleaves, a Virginia-born, Kentucky-dwelling, 20-something, Appalachian picker, whose vignettes of blue-collar, mountain resilience often have queer protagonists.

A couple of years back, "Follow Your Arrow," Kacey Musgraves's breezily casual toast to same-sex affection, and the general pursuit of whatever you happen to be into, was dubbed a sign of millennial progressiveness emerging in country music. Gleaves labors miles away from the country mainstream, inhabiting a world that's both more grassroots and more intellectualized, a world of folk clubs and southern community arts centers. A musical activist by comparison, he's often photographed with his banjo suspended from his shoulder by a rainbow-colored strap. He knows and loves traditional idioms enough to hang on to them, to tweak, toy with and talk back to them. "I think that there is a power in this old traditional music in that so many people have leaned on it," he told me on the phone. "I do want to keep adding my two cents to the tradition."

He does just that on his new album, Ain't We Brothers. It includes songs like "Two Virginia Boys," a tender ballad that bookends the old, familiar number "East Virginia Blues" with touchingly plainspoken new verses that declare the love one young, southern man feels for another. The album's title track (which you can hear here) tells a story every bit as real as the one that generated Kim Davis' recent notoriety: that of Sam Williams, a West Virginia man who worked in the coal mines, lived openly with his male partner and spoke out in the face of harassment.

Out this Friday on Community Music, Gleaves' first collection of original material was produced by his mentor and friend, folk luminary Cathy Fink, whom he credits with "teaching me how to get behind my own songs," and features contributions from the likes of Tim O'Brien and Janis Ian. During our half-hour phone conversation, Gleaves explained why singing from overlooked vantage points matters so much.

Do you expect that it will come as a surprise to people who are just finding out about you that you are an Appalachian artist who finds inspiration in old-time, bluegrass and folk traditions and is also an openly gay man — that that's an intersection of identities that does in fact exist in the world.

I mean, I think it's just people's lack of willingness to admit that queer people are everywhere, and that everyone is somewhere on the spectrum. I think people tend to think that LGBTQ identities are more silenced in rural areas, but there's been so much change. There's been so many people that have come forward and decide to be open and live in rural communities openly that things have really changed. Also, I think traditional music and traditional art really appeals to queer people, because in a lot of ways it's the music of a struggle; it's the music of people who have fought against oppression.

Was there ever a time in your own musical journey when you didn't place autobiography or identity in the foreground of what you were doing?

I started playing traditional music when I was about 12, and I loved the community that surrounded it. I loved that it was intergenerational, you know, that I was getting to learn from all these older folks and find so much in common with people my own age and across a broad range. And it really taught me to love my home in a deeper way. I'm from southwest Virginia, a little place called Wytheville, and I felt that in one way, the traditional music was maybe less represented, and that I should perform it more to expose more audiences to it. That was one thing, but then I started realizing that some people were very encouraging to me about my original songs, my family, my mother, grandmother, father, in particular. And also some friends of mine who are authors, Silas House and Jason Howard, were encouraging me to play my own material, and then I realized that my perspective does have value just like everyone's does. So I did start to play my original songs more and the more feedback I got, the more encouraged I was.

You brought your studies of vernacular music into an academic setting at Berea College. What difference did that make to your development?

I studied folklore at Berea College, and I took a lot of Appalachian studies classes, which really educated me about the history of the region and also the importance of archives, you know? I really researched a lot in our special collections and archives at Berea, because we had these great collections of traditional ballad singing, fiddle and banjo playing, stories. So I dug into all that stuff and it gave me a lot of context for the traditional music and the stories that it sprang from. And really I think what it taught me most was that a song and a singer are kind of inseparable. The singer leaves an imprint on a song, even if they didn't write it. Even if it's an old traditional piece, a singer's life really leaves a mark on a song, and who they hand it down to and how they learn it. So that's fascinating to me. I had done a little bit of field reporting and interviewing people, oral history kind of work, and I love that. Sometimes that comes out in my songs.

You mentioned different strains of resistance or protest in folk music, and it certainly wasn't lost on me that you also have a tribute to Joan Baez on the album. Urban folksingers like her must be a source for you as well.

You know, I almost feel like my parents' musical taste kind of distilled the music that I love, because my father loves hardcore, good country music and bluegrass; my mother loves singer-songwriter type of music, you know, like Natalie Merchant and folks like that. So I really see the value in both. I love contemporary folk, you know, like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Those are some of my favorite singers and writers, and especially Joan Baez's stance as an activist and her bravery to stand up and speak out about some issues that, frankly, she lost some fans over. Her decision to be an artist with integrity rather than just a commercial singer really appealed to me. So that's really what that song, "Angel in the Ashes," on the record is about: Joan's commitment to giving a voice to people who are less represented rather than just taking the easier route.

So it's almost like that folk music from the '60s kind of taught me about music from my own region. I heard Joan Baez and she would be singing a Carter Family song on an old record, and then I would realize, "Oh, my father took me to the Carter Family home when I was a little kid, and I got to hear music in their old homeplace," and realized that those people were from southwest Virginia and that country music in this nation was really kind of born in my home area. A lot of that folk music from the '60s taught me that.

It sounds like it also shaped your notion of your role as an artist, that activism or speaking for people who aren't represented can be facets of what you do.

Yes, it really did. I mean, in my songs I'm trying to tell my story as an openly gay man from southwest Virginia, but also as just someone who loves this traditional music because it tells the story of a culture and it appeals so broadly to a lot of people. Because it's like when a song is handed down over generations, there's a little thread of human truth that just gets more universal as it's passed down. My father works for the railroad, and I really identify with the working-class stories and the way of life, the stories that he brought home. So I try to represent those in my songs as well. It's just to show people that Appalachia isn't a place that stuck in the past. Like my friend Silas House says, our region is just a microcosm for America, in that the changes and the struggles that our nations are experiencing may be magnified, here but we're not excluded from them.

There is a masculine ideal of mountain singing that is high and lonesome and virile and cutting, sort of the Ralph Stanley template. You share that vocal range. You can hit those high notes. But you approach singing very differently. There's a yielding quality to the way that you use your voice. As you've developed your style as a singer, how conscious have you been of departing from that traditional masculine template?

I do love the mountain style of singing that has a hard edge. I certainly admire Ralph Stanley, and really the singer that influenced me more than any other in that regard is Hazel Dickens. I love the edge that her voice has and how it underscores the no-nonsense nature of her lyrics, and how she won't be put down. You can hear that when she sings. I also really love the singing of Sheila Kay Adams from western North Carolina. I was really fortunate to get to learn some ballads from her and befriend her. I do love that kind of vulnerability that I think women capture in song more often than men. I'm very proud of the kind of effeminate stamp on my music, because I admire so many female singers. On my office wall I've got Joan Baez and Loretta Lynn and Laurie Lewis and Jean Ritchie, and I really do admire their approach to weaving an emotion into a song and I try to do that. It's almost like it helps the audience meet you halfway somehow.

How did you first encounter the story of Sam Williams, who your song "Ain't We Brothers" is about?

I was fortunate to get to meet Sam Williams and his partner, Burley, this year. We visited them in their home in West Virginia. But I didn't know him when I wrote this song. An article came out, written by my friend Jason Howard, and his article told Sam's story. Then his name was Sam Hall, and he worked in West Virginia and he was an underground coal miner who was openly gay and lived with his partner nearby. He endured a lot of discrimination from his fellow workers there in the mines, and they put his life in danger and insulted him. So he complained about it to his supervisors, and their solution was just to move him to another mine and hope that it wouldn't happen again, but it always did. Eventually Sam put together a legal team and filed a lawsuit against the bigger coal company and won a big settlement. What really impressed me was that Sam Williams spoke out about his experience. Who knows? He might be the first openly gay, working-class representative from Appalachia in broader media.

What I tried to say in the song was if Sam was speaking to his fellow coal miners, they really had more in common than they did to separate them, and that calling him less of a man for being so courageous and living with a man in a conservative community doesn't really shake out to me. To me, he's more of a man because he was brave and had integrity. So that's what I was trying to say in the song, and I'm very, very honored with the way it's been received. Sam actually likes the song, so that means a lot.

The fact that you emphasize what they have in common, class, region and culture, that's what really struck me about the song. You're confronting his fellow miners in his voice, but you're really dwelling on their shared identity: "First things first, I'm a blue collar man."

That's what I believe, is that regardless of what struggles they're going through, people in the human race have a common thread, which they can either decide to take a hold of or they can let it divide them. I mean, I also understand, with how much inequality there is in this country, why people sometimes wouldn't want to stand together. But I do hope that the song is, through a real story, some little reminder that especially LGBTQ people are really not all that different and that they exist and that they're everywhere, and that they're good community members.

Throughout the album you depict feelings of alienation — forbidden love and pressures of family and church culture and so on — but it all plays out within the context of rootedness in a community. Why do you feel it matters that these critiques are leveled from within the community, rather than condemnation coming from without?

Being brought up in kind of the old-time music community, in my teen years that was what I was obsessed with and surrounded by a really supportive community of people. So music, for me, has always been about the individuals that I learned it from, whether they be living or passed on. I can't separate music and community in my mind, so I guess that bleeds out in my writing just intuitively. I don't think about it intentionally. And also having a really good receptive family experience and experience in my hometown, the place where I live now in Berea, Kentucky, those positive experiences from your community and your family encourage you to speak about what happened to you in your life without shame.

I'm proud to be from Appalachia, because I'm fortunate to have had a family experience and an education that taught me the value of it, and the musical experience, too. And so, I can speak about it without being afraid. Everyone in life has struggles and growing pains, but I can discuss that through music and feel validated, rather than having to dig up a bunch of bones or, you know, the people that feel like they have to run away, especially queer people, that they have to go live in the city and be anonymous somehow and not speak with an accent. The media can kind of shame people from the Appalachian region in a lot of ways, but I was lucky to have a family and a music community and live in areas where I didn't have to do that, and I hope it does come through in my music.

In the lyrics of "If I Could Write A Song," you say, "A song makes sense of the way I am, where I come from, where I stand." That kind of feels like a statement of purpose or artistic vision to me, but what does it mean to you?

Recently I was writing a little piece about music and what it's meant to me, and I was thinking music, for me, has been a reconciling ground. Living in our modern world, we have so many tensions. Like how do you decide your identity when you hear your grandparents telling these old stories, but you also watch your TV? And you're trying to figure out who you are in this changing world and what matters to you and what you want to carry forward in life. Music, for me, has always been a way to stop and reflect and think, "Who am I really? Who do I belong to? What do I want to bring forward?" And so, that's what that means to me. The music is a place where conflict is resolved.

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Jewly Hight