“I feel very fortunate to be playing this music in a time when I can be honest about who I am,” says Sam Gleaves. “We’re making so much progress now, in terms of equality for the LGBTQ community, [but] we see such tremendous challenges, and violence against our community now too. So I think now is really the time to be out in our music, and to give voice to our community through music.”
By and large, the LGBT community has not heard its voice reflected in the popular forms of Gleaves’ genre: traditional country music. “Mainstream country music is just so white and straight and exclusive in a lot of ways,” he says. “But there are a lot of queer folks that identify with the diverse country music that I’ve always been exposed to.”
Gleaves, who lives in rural Kentucky, grew up listening to folk music in southwestern Virginia. He considers himself lucky to have a family whose support never wavered after he came out in high school. And he hasn’t faced discrimination — at least not outwardly — as a gay bluegrass musician.
“There is a tradition of people from the Appalachian mountains using traditional music to speak about the social and political issues that affect them and their communities,” he says. “The old-time music community, for the most part, is welcoming to diverse musicians…. [We share] a common love of the music, so often that is the defining factor, rather than the things that make us different.”
As testament to that acceptance, Gleaves will be one among the featured performers at the 10th Annual Old Time Banjo Festival this Saturday at The Birchmere. He calls is “a real honor” to be included and will be performing on a bill that includes Roni Stoneman, as well as his mentor Cathy Fink and her wife Marcy Marxer. The couple organizes the festival and also co-produced Gleaves’ 2015 album, Ain’t We Brothers.
Gleaves, a private person, acknowledges that it can be nerve-racking to sing about personal matters such as his sexuality. “So much of my life experiences are in a lot of my music that I kind of feel hesitant to share it,” he says. “But when people tell me that they identify with it, or that they had a similar experience, or that it meant something to them, it makes it all worth it.”
The 10th Annual Mike Seeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival is Saturday, July 9, at 7:30 p.m. The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. Tickets are $29.50. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com.