Down the wire, cable to cable and jumping through the air, the signal connected Canadian snow mountains with Kentucky, specifically musician Sam Gleaves in the heart of Appalachia. You can hear southern hospitality in Gleaves’ accent and small, warm expressions. It’s a treat to listen to him – and a real shame that the interview isn’t being broadcast for listening.
(Edit: Listen to a short clip from the interview at the end of this article)
He is himself well-versed in the power of oral history, which was the foundation of his folklore studies at Brerea College. “I did a lot of interviews with traditional musicians, ranging from people in their 80s, the real tradition bearers, to people my own age,” Gleaves told me via Skype. “I think oral history is a very powerful way to present contemporary issues and problems, like journalism, to say what people really think about what’s happening around us.”
The musician’s own roots go deep into the history of Appalachia, a region known for its rich traditions and poor economy. He grew up in Virginia and now calls Kentucky home. “There are some common issues that we face throughout most of our communities. You know, economic disadvantages, struggles for job opportunities for young people, disparities in education and health care — a long list of socioeconomic problems.
“But also we have this beautiful culture with a real sense of hospitality and strong sense of community and family, and valuing heritage and tradition.”
His family has lived in the same Appalachian county for generations, since the American Revolutionary War, and the songwriter feels fortunate to have grown up with a strong sense of place and storytelling as part of the culture. He is proud to be a part of that continuing history.
“That’s part of what drew me into the music, is being part of our living history but also a way of talking about what is happening now. I love old songs, the traditional music, but I also try to represent contemporary social issues in the songs I write, in addition to just making music that can entertain.”
So what’s it like to write new songs and introduce them into such a strongly traditional culture? “I’ve been lucky to have a good reception from my own community as well. You know, there are some people who think traditional music shouldn’t be messed with,” said Gleaves, laughing. “Maybe there’s a camp of people who don’t think what I do isn’t traditional music at all, but I don’t hear from them.”
And although Gleaves continues the tradition of storytelling in song, he’s added some new names to the cannon of folk heroes, like Sam Williams. Williams is the inspiration behind Ain’t We Brothers, which is more than just the story of his struggle as an openly gay coal miner in the South fighting discrimination. Gleaves, also openly gay, feels like his sexuality is really secondary to, well, pretty much everything, and couldn’t people get over it already.
“Yeah, that’s how I feel,” Gleaves confirmed. “As a human being, we have more in common with each other than we do separates us, really. That song really is about what does it mean to be a man in our culture now. Should I have integrity, does that make you a man? Or if you do a certain amount of hard work, or a certain amount of dedication to your family? Or is it that you have to be a heterosexual? Or you have to be confrontational? I think we’re redefining that constantly as we go forward. Through that story I was exploring what being a man meant.”
For Gleaves, coming out and being gay hasn’t been such a struggle.
“The more that I think about it, I knew I was different. I knew I was an artist before I knew I was gay,” he said. “It’s always been secondary to being an artist. I’m lucky to have grown up in a family experience and pretty much a community experience where I didn’t have to be ashamed of who I was. Sometimes you run across people that don’t have the place in their brain to accept someone of a different sexual orientation, but that’s never hindered me much.”
And the songwriter has taken Appalachian mountain music out into the world and found it connected with people in Japan, Ireland and England, in both rural areas and in cities.
What is it that makes this music from a tradition steeped in place and particular culture so appealing to so many different people?
“There’s a simplicity about traditional music that makes it profound,” Gleaves explained. “It uses plain language and it uses everyday life as a lens to look at the world to criticize and celebrate it. So much of what I consider to be art would be as simple as cooking a meal or telling a story. The world view is bound up in the music — I think that’s why it appeals to people. “
Sam Gleaves will be making his way from the deep South to the deep snows of Canada to play the Revelstoke Coffee House Hootenanny Extravaganza at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre on Dec. 27. He will be joined by the Willy Gaw Quintet and many talented locals. Tickets are $15, available at Valhalla Pure.