Sam Gleaves : Aint We Brothers
It may have all started in a barbershop in Rural Retreat, Virginia, when a young Sam Gleaves walked into an informal jam session of Appalachian old-time music, but Gleaves’ interest and dedication to Appalachian folk culture has become a lifelong quest. And while the lodestar on his debut solo album, Ain’t We Brothers (release: Nov 13, 2015), may be Gleaves’ deep Appalachian roots, the young singer-songwriter draws on his own personal experiences for the album— with an important element to his perspective; Gleaves is openly gay. Alongside a history of arts activism in the region, Gleaves crafts tales that resonate simultaneously with today’s struggles and yesterday’s trials. On Ain’t We Brothers, Gleaves has a refreshing take on traditional pieces, along with compelling original songs, as he chronicles the blighted hillsides and laughter-filled porches, the faith and distress, the honest loves and true heartbreak of people around him. With production guidance from Grammy-winning folk powerhouse Cathy Fink, Gleaves gathered a new musical community around him, including some of the best-loved players in the scene (Tim O’Brien, Tim Crouch, Janis Ian, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer) and old, dear friends, like singer and former bandmate Donavan Cain, and Southwest Virginia banjo player Tyler Hughes.
The stories on Ain’t We Brothers hit familiar notes—the working family coping with generations of working in the mines, the courtship of devoted lovers—but are just as likely to leap off in unexpected directions. The title track, based on the true-life story of Sam Williams, a gay West Virginia coal miner ostracized and harassed for his sexuality, evokes a side of Appalachian lives usually overlooked in bluegrass and old-time music. Gleaves’ work speaks to the long line of dedicated, progressive voices in the mountains, pushing against discrimination and parochial attitudes while cleaving to their beloved regional art forms and storytelling. “It’s made me realize there was still a need to write songs about people who face these circumstances,” he says. “Be it living under a mountaintop removal site, or fighting for equality.”
At the heart of the project was always the stories—and the lives behind them. “The music was always a gateway to get to know my own culture better,” Gleaves says. “There’s still a need to tell stories through music, to get people to relate emotionally to someone who’s different from them. Often, people will consider what someone is saying in a song, without thinking about political stances. There’s more emotional appeal.”