Sam Gleaves is a Virginia-born openly gay singer/songwriter/musician, who performs Appalachian music. Gleaves embraced the Appalachian sound—considered to be the traditional music of the region of Appalachia in the eastern United States—at an early age, and is set to release his first record of original songs this November.
Windy City Times: At the age of 12 you learned how to play banjo, guitar, fiddle, autoharp and dulcimer. Were you self-taught?
Sam Gleaves: It was kind of a gradual thing. I grew up in southwest Virginia in a small town called Wythe and my family has lived there for a long time. I took an interest in old-time music—string bands music—and I met up with a local teacher named Jim Lloyd, who is a multi-instrumentalist, and taught a lot of young people like me and people of all ages.
The people in the community had a place to play instruments in his barbershop. So I started going in there and hanging out there all the time and I got hooked on this music. There's a strong community of people who get together at local festivals and community spaces to play this old-time music. I found it to be a very welcoming and a wonderful community of people, and that is why I wanted to be involved and that's why I ended up taking up so many instruments.
WCT: At that age did you envision becoming a singer and musician as a career?
SG: People really encouraged me all the way through. My mentors and my family encouraged me to pursue it as a career and they saw that I had a passion for it.
WCT: Tell me about the rich musical history and culture of Appalachian music.
SG: I'm from the central Appalachian region—the mountains in southwest Virginia. The music that's native to there is really beautiful and has a lot of cultures. There were Anglo-American settlers there but also African-American music is a huge part of the tradition—the banjo being an African instrument—and the spirituals and all of that stuff melded with those Anglo traditions and made a very diverse music.
WCT: How did you develop a love for Appalachian music at such a young age?
SG: My father loves traditional country music so he played great records for me like Dolly Parton and all kinds of wonderful country music. My mom loved singer/songwriters like Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan. So they played a lot of great records for me but neither of them are musicians themselves. There was a branch of my family in my grandmother's generation that played this traditional music, so I guess it might be in my blood somewhere.
WCT: As an openly gay artist singing Appalachian music in Virginia, were you welcomed by the community?
SG: I was welcomed. All of my mentors treated me as a musician first. The music is such a language and you can communicate through music across all kinds of lines of difference. As an openly gay musician, I didn't experience any kind of rejection. This music community is so diverse that there is a lot of unexpected acceptance that happens.
There are some conservative attitudes and some fundamentalists' attitudes that are ingrained in the music and some of the people who play it. But it doesn't govern everything and I think that people really treat the music as their first priority. I certainly had a few bumps along the way where I encountered homophobia, but not from teachers or people that I really valued in the music.
WCT: Is there an LGBT community in Virginia that you can embrace?
SG: There is, and we are experiencing the same problems that LGBT people are experiencing all over the world, which is that often LGBT communities are centered in urban areas. So the misconception is that there are no gay people in rural areas, which is not true.
WCT: Tell me about the song "Ain't We Brothers," from your upcoming CD of the same name.
SG: I wrote this song about a gay coal miner in West Virginia and it speaks to the fact that there are gay people in the working class who really care about who they are and want to make their identities known all over the world.
WCT: Last January, you raised $8,550 with your Indiegogo campaign to help fund the making of this record. How does it feel to finally be releasing it?
SG: It is a vulnerable feeling—putting out this record—because the stories are very personal and it is the most openly gay project I've ever put out. I don't make any separation between who I am and what I write so that's been a journey in and of itself, but I'm taking that step forward in the hopes that it will create a space for other people to do the same.
Ain't We Brothers will be released Friday, Nov. 13. Find out more about Gleaves at, www.samgleaves.com .