Our interview guest for this week is multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and Appalachian Music Professor Sam Gleaves, who was born and raised in Wytheville, Virginia. Rooted in Appalachian sounds, Gleaves’ songwriting sings of contemporary rural life and social issues. In 2015, Gleaves collaborated with Grammy-winning producer Cathy Fink and released a debut record of original songs, titled “Ain’t We Brothers,” which has been featured by The Guardian, National Public Radio, and No Depression. A passionate teaching artist, Gleaves has shared Appalachian traditions at numerous music camps, colleges, universities, and public schools. He currently serves as a traditional music instructor and director of the Bluegrass Ensemble at Berea College.
In our chat this week, we discuss how Sam got started as a young musician growing up in the hills of Appalachia, the mentors who encouraged him, and his various influences from pop icons to local legends.
Sam also opens up about how impostor syndrome shows up for him, how he started adding original songs to his repertoire of traditional music, the mentors who made a difference in his life, and why he considers himself an “artivist” rather than an “activist.”
We get to hear his original tune “Ain’t We Brothers”, accompanied by West Virginia legend Tim O’Brien, chronicling the story of a gay coal miner and his plea for simple dignity and acceptance.
Artists/Links mentioned in show:
Sam Gleaves Website
Sam Gleaves on Facebook
Forked Deer as fiddled by Roger Cooper
Kentucky Author Silas House
Kentucky Author Jason Kyle Howard
Support the show
welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do.
well, hello dreamers, welcome back to another episode of the what dreamers do podcast and i’m so excited to be with you this week because i am not alone. i have a very special guest with me sitting right here beside me. and his name is sam gleaves. and if you haven’t heard about sam, he’s going to be telling you more about himself, but i will just let you know that he is a multi instrumentalist from appalachia. he is a songwriter, beautiful singer harmony singer. he is an educator. he is the bluegrass ensemble director, as well as the appalachian instruments instructor at berea college in berea, kentucky.
he has made an album and had albums produced by cathy fink and marcy marxer, he has played and recorded music with some heavy hitters like tim o’brien, laurie lewis and janice en. and i am so happy to be able to chat with him this week. and i know you guys are going to love hearing from him. thanks, sam. thank you, carla. i admire you so much as an artist, and you have really been an inspiration to me, truly. and so this is an honor to get to speak with you. when you’re at your kitchen table where what could be better, it’s the best, it’s where all the best things happen is around the kitchen table right in the kitchen somehow. well, you know, there’s so much that we can talk about and so much that we will talk about but a good place to start as always at the beginning. so
maybe you could share with people how you came to start playing music and where that was where you grew up, and kind of your early life as a musician.
i was born and raised in wytheville virginia, which is a small town at the edge of the blue ridge mountains.
my father’s family had been there for
like way back many generations.
i also feel that i should say now that although my father’s family has been in with county since around the time of the revolutionary war, they were living on stolen land.
my mom’s family.
i think my great great grandmother’s generation on mum. in my mom’s family were the ones that moved to with full so i felt very rooted there. like my family was very rooted there. i knew all for my grandparents and a great grandmother growing up. wow. and yes, i was so fortunate. and my mom and dad don’t play music. but they love music. and my mom would always play women singer songwriters like natalie merchant in the car, and we would sing along and and then my dad loved hardcore
country, bluegrass, you know, like flatt and scruggs, and right doc watson and that sort of thing. and they just really loved music in a deep way, both of them and encouraged me and my brother to put music in our lives. you know, if we wanted music lessons, they would always support that, you know, and my grandma is a singer, and she plays clarinet and piano and sang in a quartet. i’ll woman quartet in her church, and she directed children’s choir and her church and you know, will always be part of any kind of music event music life at her church. and so i guess she was really the one that encouraged me the most to sing. you know, if the children’s choir was for people, she would push me to the front, you know, in this little methodist church, so singing was that your first? yes into music? yeah, i love to sing. and i always love to sing but i was real shy about it. still am in a lot of ways. and my my grandma was the one saying, you know you’ve ever pretty voice you should you should sing. and i still love to sing with my grandma. she’s my only living grandparents. oh, wow. yeah. and she is really, really special.
to me and has been a very loving encouraging force. what’s the song that you guys sing together? in the garden? always? yes, yes. yeah, no, it’s the harmony on that is the prettiest and uncloudy day she lives on cloudy days. another great one. yes. and so as saying, and i was really fortunate to have piano lessons, when i was a kid that quit, because i got frustrated reading music, i really was just memorizing it. i wasn’t learning to read. i wasn’t practicing, really, because what i love to do was sit down at the piano and just make up melodies. and just saying, well, you know, i loved like, talking books and fantasy sort of, so i would just like make up words in different languages and be running around in the yard, making up these songs and singing to myself. i was just kind of wild, i can see i can see little sam running around singing all token and elf songs.
that was me. and then, when i was a teenager, i got interested in
like folk rock, and stuff from the 70s like fleetwood mac, like, they were like my icons, you know, like when i was a teenager, and, and then i got into, like, bob dylan and joan baez. and then i would read in the notes to their records. oh, this is a carter family song, or whatever. and my dad had taken me to the carter family fold. i mean, it’s so near where i grew up.
my dad was even living in bristol, so very close to where the carter family were from, you know, but i didn’t get that that was appalachian music from the area that i was from. i didn’t understand that until i was like a teenager.
isn’t that amazing? i think about this all the time. because,
you know, my mother went to a settlement school. and there were a lot of people in appalachia myself included, to a certain extent that we’re told, the message that we were given by the by the outside mass media is that, well, you need to get some culture, you need to learn how to appreciate opera, and ballet and
you know, people, my friends hear me talk about this a lot. but it really is irrelevant, because
because a lot of times we aren’t aware of or maybe properly appreciative of the riches that are all around us. and i had a similar moment. it was so funny. my dad
got a free subscription when i was like nine or 10 years old, to food and wine magazine, like somebody just randomly sent him this free subscription. and i love to try the recipes out. of course, we had to drive all the way to hazard to get some of the ingredients because whitesburg didn’t have them. but there was one issue. and it was called something like food delicacies of appalachia. and i remember they had fiddlehead ferns, and they had ramps, and they were memorials in it. and i was like, oh, well, obviously this stuff and i went out, i ran up through the woods and gathered all that produce that was growing there and cooked it all animals. it took this outside validation representation matters. that’s what i’m saying. so yeah, the fact that you came to some of the awareness of what a treasure trove that you had in terms of where you lived in the historical and cultural background around you. via bob dylan and joan baez, i think that’s not necessarily a typical, that’s pretty common. yeah, i would say so. and, well, for instance, there’s a story i like to recall from that time. so my dad took me to the carter family fold, which was established by jeanette carter in honor of her parents, you know, they have loud music and dance, and they’re you probably flat footed there. and
when i was into this folk rock stuff, and when i was a teenager, you know, when you’re a teenager, you don’t like what your parents like, no matter what it is, right? so i was there. we were taking in the show. and around the intermission, i asked my dad if we could leave or if i could go home, you know, because i wasn’t driving. and dads have long. yeah, i know. you’d rather be listening to janis joplin. but this is good music too. and the woman on stage playing the autoharp. it was the first time i’ve seen anybody play in autoharp. and i was i just loved the sound of it though. and that was kind of what hooked me. i was like, okay, this is pretty cool, you know? and come to find out. her name was rhoda camp, this singer and musician. she had taught jim lloyd, who became my teacher. and my mom, when i got interested in guitar, i was beating around on it trying to teach myself to play. i had some cousins who played and they helped me a little bit. but she was saying do you want lessons do you want to guitar lessons? i said, yeah.
i wouldn’t be excited about that. and she said, well, there’s a guy in rural retreat, which is the ritz in the same county. it’s the community where my mom teaches school.
she said well, jim lloyd and rural retreat, he teaches music lessons at his barbershop. let’s go see how you like it. and she dropped me off in there. i was wearing a bob dylan tie that shirt. i went in with my guitar. i had this like real sparkly inlaid flashy looking guitar. and i went in there and jim lloyd was sitting there playing
and there were
there was a young person playing call him a banjo, young person playing fiddle, and he was playing rhythm guitar, they were playing for kadir and i’ll never forget how drive and it was, i mean, i’ve never seen dance music like that up that close and seeing young people my age with a man who’s you know, 20 some years old and they’re playing together. and i was hooked. i was like, oh my gosh, i gotta learn how to do this. you know, so for kadir was the gateway drug? oh, yes, it was. and i remember watching this young fella clawhammer the banjo and i thought i could never learn how to do that. that looks so complicated. it sounds so complicated
you know so anyway out jim was really generous to me. he taught me for several years through high school. and he took me around to fiddler’s conventions with him before i could drive you know, he would invite me to everything every concert that he did, because you were right there in the middle of it all. you didn’t have to drive far. yeah. oh, you got the gay likes fiddler’s convention. i live for that when i was a kid in the summertime and camping out for a week and wandering around a different campsite and meeting people like rhoda camp who are master musicians.
you know, the rhone mountain hilltoppers would be there play in i mean, you know, just like legendary old time musicians.
and in jim nuuma was friends with my he introduced me to sheila kay adams.
i remember in one weekend, i saw sheila kay, jim lloyd david hole and andrina belcher and i’ve been playing the banjo for two weeks. oh my god. yeah. so anyway, there was he was so good to include young people in what he was doing. he taught all kinds of young people and people of all generations, we played for a square dance every wednesday night at elizabeth lapels. family, wow, they had a summer camp. and okay, she don’t know these names. you guys. these are all like icons of traditional folk music of appalachia, and they’re just down home friendly people that were neighbors and yeah, so i was really fortunate to grow up where and when i did, and i’m thankful to jim for his generosity.
so at this time, you know, you’re you’re learning different instruments, you’re soaking it up, you’re learning to appreciate that you’re drinking right from the will that so many people have had to come and seek out and you had the good fortune to be born right there into it.
were you also exploring songwriting at that time still, i was, you know, because i loved
joan baez and stevie nicks and all these people that were, you know, like, that were songwriters, you know, yeah. and then i learned oh, there are songwriters like ola, belle reed, who are from appalachia, hazel dickens, you know, these people who are writing about their experience as a person from the mountains and in the style in the sort of traditional sounding right, right. and not jean ritchie. that was when i heard of who jean ritchie was because i got interested in the mountain dulcimer. and you know, jean ricci, i admire her as much as a songwriter as any of her many other gifts and yeah, so
then i got interested more in the traditional music and that led me to berea college in 2010. have an i love kentucky ever since i haven’t been able to leave yet. well, it’ll it’ll get in your blood and kentucky is certainly happy to claim you now. thank you. one thing about that time in my life when i was first learning to play old time music, i felt like because i didn’t grow up on a farm, or i didn’t grow up in a family that played old time music directly. like in my home that i was a fake somehow or something like that. i couldn’t learn to play old time music, you know, that i didn’t have a right to it or so because i grew up in a small town, you know, and i
that my grandma and my great aunt talked about living on a farm.
you know, no electricity, helping their neighbors
with farm chores, you know, i mean, their life out in the cove area where they grew up was very different than mine. but, and their and their people played old time music.
but it skipped a couple generations in my family. and so that’s something that i’ve been exploring ever since is, you know, like, what does it mean to be a modern kid that played video games and clawhammer banjo, you know, and
grew up, you know, with, like a lot of in addition to learning from a lot of people who were very generous with me, i was
learning from archival recordings, and people were giving me cds and things all the time that i was learning music from as well. well, i think some version of that has always been true. and i think that that one of the things that maybe is erroneous about how we think about how this music is passed on is that there was some mystical point in appalachian history where the mountaineers were so cut off from the rest of the world that they all they did was play old time music, and they
they didn’t have that pop culture influence, but i think they always have had the pop culture influence. i mean, i make the joke, because i do as you know, a version of cyndi lauper is girls just want to have fun on the banjo.
there weren’t very many video games when i was a kid. but
you know, i was listening to mtv. and i kind of wonder if the phenomenon that you’re describing, i mean, i know what you’re saying. and i think maybe media stereotypes cause us to feel that way about ourselves as appalachians like unless i totally grew up on the farm with the outhouse with no electricity, then i’m not an authentic
purveyor of appalachian music, which is not true, right?
but also, i think that appalachians have never been completely cut off from the rest of the world. i mean, maybe there’s been some isolation. and yeah, living in a rural area where you’ve got to entertain yourself has caused
people to play more music, probably than they might have if they’d been living in a big city with a bunch of nightlife. but on the other hand, i think music from other places, other people’s from the radio has been influencing it’s a give and take, you know, there’s, there’s no man is an island. no culture is an island. absolutely. so i kind of wonder if what you were feeling wasn’t some measure of imposter syndrome, which almost every creative person i know, feels in some or many forms or fashions? oh, i think so. and you articulated that so well, because i do think that it is a limitation and a stereotype to believe that only rural people can play old time music, or that only people that have a direct lineage in their families can play old time music or direct lineage of learning.
need a knee in person with people, and i was i was so lucky to have that, you know, when i was young, and but when i started when i was 13, or 14, i felt like i was late and behind the times, because i was seeing people that fillers conventions that could burn up whatever instrument they had, and they were younger than me, or whatever. and i thought, oh my gosh, i’m behind like, what? or i’ve never learned to do that. so yeah, i think people, the stereotypes and the imposter syndrome are woven together. and i just wanted to say that, too, say that, you know, artists, like be responsible about the representing the culture, that the music that you play, but also, you know, be your whole self. and don’t be limited by that, you know, the, the stereotypes that say that this music only looks a certain way,
talks a certain way, you know,
this music is bound by
play, but by geographic boundaries, and all you know, the all these things are, right, well, i forgot. i think it’s the nature of appalachian music and probably folk music in general, to be inclusive, to go past barriers in borders and to break down the walls between people. and
obviously, we’re at a time, like you said, where we have to be mindful of issues of cultural appropriation or really just to me, it boils down to respect and context and just being mindful about what you’re doing and being respectful and i think there’s a lot of room for
no matter where you’re from, or what your background is, you know, humans love to explore music and share music and mix together different kinds of music and yes, you know, i’m all about that. i
i agree. so at what point on your journey as a musician, did you start to produce songs that you felt comfortable sharing or that you started getting a good response from? when was the time or what was the point where you started to think of yourself as a real songwriter.
i was so fortunate that i had good music teachers in public schools, all the way through.
and the in my high school, the, there was a music teacher, a drama teacher who also taught german journalism, an art teacher and an english teacher that all loved on me, we had a group, a tight knit little group of,
you know, my high school friends were also artists, you know, the people writing poetry on the back of their worksheets, and, you know, learning to play guitars and forming bands and making visual art. and those teachers were so good to us. that i think that i felt validated. when, you know, i started writing poetry and trying to write lyrics and songs at the same time that i was learning to play the guitar. and i mean, i had when i was kid.
but what made it feel real was having these friends and these teachers that would listen to the songs that i wrote.
as a kid, i had this real impulse to share, i just wanted to sing the songs that i was writing for other people. and i was just lucky that i had a crew that was into that, you know, and we were supportive of each other. but when
i started to try to write songs that
that were connected to old time music, in some way, well, like so when i was learning to clawhammer banjo i thought, oh, well, what if i wrote something that maybe sounded like one of these old love songs or, you know, something? like, i started to get interested in that. and i was sort of writing down lyrics to ballads. i love narrative songs and ballads, you know, i was copying down in my notebooks, everything that jean ritchie so that could find and here and sheila kay adams when i’m, when i met her, when i’ve been playing the banjo for two weeks, like i said, she was so kind and encouraging to me too, and giving me a cd and a novel that she wrote that had a lot of ballads lyrics in it. and so i thought, what if i could, or, you know, i would like to try to write something that sounds like this, you know, like, i really felt like, drawn to those ballots and,
and the, the magic in them, especially.
and so when, so i wrote a song about coal mining this called working shoes, which is about generations in a coal mining family, and i played it for jim lloyd, he had grown up in a coal camp in southern west virginia, and in southwestern virginia. and he said, he said, i’ll identify with a lot of that, that you wrote, and that’s when that felt real to me. yeah, i wrote that song when i was in college early in my time at berea college, because i was taking a class with silas house reading about the history of coal mining communities because i didn’t grow up in one.
then to sing that song for someone who came from that place and to hear him say, you know, a lot of that sounds real and he suggested that i tweak one lyric ah, and i really appreciated that. and
so that’s when it started feeling real to me.
yeah, i can imagine having see i didn’t know that you didn’t grow up in a coal mining community because i’ve never been down and yeah, it’s far as farther east you know, like you would go through if you’re driving from kentucky, you know, through the cumberland gap through lee county was county you know, past abington. okay, i grew up so is more rolling hills. okay. yeah.
well, also, there’s a we brothers and so that’s mentioned coal mining, too. and so i just i think i always just assumed that
they there was some of some of it in your background. yeah, that song came out of that same class that i took under silas house, who has been an incredibly generous mentor and friend to me and
i came in one day and he had printed this article for us, written by jason howard. and it was about sam hall, a coal miner from west virginia who had
sued the coal company that he worked for because he had been discriminated against on the basis of his sexuality and
i read the story and i thought, i’m i’ve never seen a representation of a working class, appalachian gay man before, in that way, you know, that worked in that kind of occupation, which is so coal mining being such a traditionally macho kind of occupation. i mean, of course, women have been monitored to and, you know, made important contributions. but you know what i mean? like, there’s stereotypically it’s a male. yeah, i have a friend whose mother is coal miner, and a recently retired coal miner, but she faced a lot of discrimination too. but i can only imagine that it would have been much the same, if not worse for a gay man in the minds, right. and so the what made me think what after i read jason’s article, i thought, sam hall’s fellow coal miners, were insulting him. he was outed,
his fellow workers found out that he was gay. and then they started insulting him.
took the wheel weights off his truck, vandalized his truck, and his dinner bucket, you know, like, make threats, that sort of awful stuff. and i thought, how dare they call him less of a man, when he’s so brave, you have to be brave anyway to go underground and ccminer to begin with? absolutely. and then you, you know, he was being an openly gay man to some degree and southern west virginia. and i thought, you know, this is, he’s a hero to me, and that he spoke out publicly about his experience, and got involved in organizing with fairness campaign, in our coalition in west virginia, i can’t remember the exact title. but he was trying to lobby the state legislature to tell his story. so they would know, we need protections for all people in the workplace in this state in this country, you know, and so he’s a real hero to me. and that’s
the song we brothers is written from his perspective.
yeah, so i, i really love that song. and i love that, you know, it is in a traditional style, but it has an activist theme, because that’s, you know, close to my own heart. obviously, i as a songwriter, and a traditional music performer that likes to
address issues of social change through my music like appalachian people always have. i especially appreciate that. but i have to bring up something that you said earlier, before we started the podcast when i asked you, you know, if you’re an activist, or you wanted to talk about your activism, and you said that you did not consider yourself an activist. so could you tell me more about that?
i’m so privileged, you know, so i am a white cisgendered. man from a working class, middle class family.
i had a lot of love in my life growing up, good family situation.
i feel that privilege.
when i, when we talk about activism, because it was easy for me to do what i did in my music, it would add in, i was not afraid to sing a story about sam hall, who’s now sam williams, the coal miner we were just talking about.
because i at that, at the time, i wrote it, i hadn’t met him.
i was just going by what i read, you know, and i,
and i just felt like somehow, like, at that time, 2011 when i wrote the song, things were changing publicly, you know?
i mean, you know, there’s still so far to go for lgbtq liberation, for liberation and freedom for all people, you know, in the united states, especially, but like
i was not afraid to sing that song. because for one thing, i thought, well, this is a story about another person. i’m just singing it. you know, he’s the lyrical i, but i mean, i’m singing it. my name is also sam, but like, i didn’t feel like people were going to harm me physically. like, you know, gender a couple generations ago, one generation go in the lgbtq plus liberation movement. people were getting beaten. and you know, i mean, it’s still do that still happens. but i was because of my privilege and maybe just youth not being aware.
or what i was doing, i, you know, i was just wasn’t
afraid, in the way that someone, you know, that other people have to be,
or that other people have to rise above that. it’s complicated. but i think, fundamentally, why i say that i don’t
label activist is because i have so much respect for people, like
the organizers, you know, for black lives, people who are
advocating for the environment in appalachia who are
putting their bodies on the line.
they’re activists, in a way that i just want to respect them. and i don’t i mean, i think our activism already. i heard joe troop use that word. i mean, somewhat. there’s someone i respect and admire.
and so i just feel like what i did was, was easy for me in a way that it’s not for many activists. maybe that’s my own blinders. i don’t know, well, i understand what you’re saying. and you just want to give respect to people that have even more dire or dangerous situations to deal with in their activism. although, i would like to point out that just because you weren’t afraid for your physical body still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t brave for you to write and sing that song. and thank you.
art of ism, i think that’s, you know, i’ll accept that term. that’s fine. i one thing i also love about it is how it is a part of helping shift the cultural narrative about this monolithic type that were supposedly that were supposed to be in appalachia, you know, just showing up as yourself singing the songs you sang. and being the person you are you are helping to shift the monolithic narrative that all people from appalachia, are ye you know, trump voters who have confederate flags on the sides of their truck or whatever, you know, the stereotypes are? yeah, and i think that’s important. thank you. i
am honored to have had mentors like silas house and jason howard and others friends who they they encouraged me a lot. they would listen to songs like hey, we brothers, i wrote it at their kitchen table. i was house sitting for them. and so like that, that helped me so much that that love and acknowledge judgment validation from from them.
okay, dreamers, we are going to put a pin in that interview now and come back next week with part two of our interview with sam gleaves. but i’m not going to leave you hanging i’m going to play this beautiful song that he wrote. eight we brothers accompanied vocally by the inimitable tim o’brien, another one of my favorites. and guys, don’t tell sam but i absolutely think sam is a glorious activist. but we will also call him an artivist out of respect for his desire for that term. i like that term too. and meanwhile, please enjoy this song. and i can’t wait to see you again. next week on the wet dreamers do podcast i leave you with ain’t we brothers?
i was born here just the same as you
another time another day. i’m sure the good lord took his stone made each of us just this way.
walk beside you step by step. and it never crossed my mind that
one of the different guys
that didn’t stop me from chopping the wood, scraping my knees like all boys should have gone down to the greek in the noonday sun ringing out my shirt when the work god.
first things first. i’m a blue collar man. just scars
on my hands. probably wouldn’t have ever known. i’ve got a man with me.
to tell you the truth, don’t lie. just want to say one thing.
paywave flesh and blood through
name wade brothers
good job and work dried by you walked down in that hole beside you thought i’ve heard some whispers god found down word god around
god made down for something i’m not called everything but a child of god
didn’t mind to show it
out in the parking lot
so i cut my uncle with my hand down just like a stranger in my own town. god bitter day by day went home every night with the mess name
first things first time a blue collar man just scars on my knuckles does
probably would have ever known i’ve got a man when on me
to tell you the truth i don’t want to fight i just want to say one thing
right we flesh and blood all through
name wade brothers
ben enough to set foot in there.
and tell me that one small tip my face this time
today don’t want to fight. just want to say one thing, right?
ain’t we flesh and blood through
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