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11/17/2015
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Interview: Sam Gleaves "I'm a Fabu-lachian!"

Music is a must have for me.

I think everybody knows that, but sometimes I like to wax poetic about this amazing medium we have in the world.

Music is truly a universal language.

I can listen to Baby Metal in Japanese, Malady in Finnish, and Deicide without having to worry about what they're saying.

I can feel the emotions they're conveying.

All that being said though...

Sometimes it's really nice to hear someone speak about something through music...in a language I understand well.

Sam Gleaves has done just that on his debut album, Ain't We Brothers. On the title track, he told the story of a gay coal miner who was ostracized by his co-workers. Powerful stuff. How am I supposed to ask questions of someone dealing with such large issues! Well I tried....

Glacially Musical: Thank you for taking some time for me.

After hearing your album, I'm quite eager to learn more about you. What should we all know about Sam Gleaves? Just one thing..what's the one thing?

Sam Gleaves: I'm a Fabu-lachian.

GM: One of my favorite questions to ask, so I do it all the time is...what are the most important five albums of all time?

SG: Oooooh, there's a head-scratcher.

To me, it would have to be Joni Mitchell's BLUE, Alice Gerrard's BITTERSWEET, Tina Turner's ALL THE BEST, Dolly Parton's HEARTSONGS LIVE FROM HOME, and Si Kahn's NEW WOOD.

GM: I'm really not familiar with bluegrass or any Appalachian music in general, but with folk artists, isn't normal to do a load of standards?

SG: I think there has always been a tradition among Appalachian musicians of making old songs new again.

One of the world's best known protest songs, "Which Side Are You On?" was written by a woman from Harlan County Kentucky, Florence Reece.

She composed new lyrics about her experience as a miner's wife and set them to the tune of an old hymn. Jean Ritchie often used traditional melodies for her environmental and social protest songs, and so does my friend Sue Massek of the Reel World Stringband.

I love traditional music as it has been handed down but I'm also passionate about representing contemporary social issues in song. To me, it feels natural to combine the two.

GM: Did you find it hard creating new songs in a genre full of standards?

SG: I did have some reservations about performing songs that I had written at first.

I felt at one time that the traditional music was under-represented and that I should sing it more to make audiences aware of it, putting my original songs on the back burner.

But then I realized that my particular perspective as a gay man from the Appalachian region has value and deserves to be shared as well.

All of my family and my author friends Silas House and Jason Howard were instrumental in convincing me to share the music I've written, as was the producer of the album, Cathy Fink, who has combined music, history and activism throughout her career.

GM: Over this past weekend, my daughter was walking around singing, "We Shall Overcome." Could you see "Ain't We Brothers" achieving that status in 20 or 50 years?

SG: Both of those songs are tied to movements for social justice, but I can't directly compare the struggle of LGBTQ people from Appalachia to the struggle of people of color in this country.

I do very much believe that all oppression does intersect somewhere and people in these movements for change should learn from each others' stories.

I wouldn't put "Ain't We Brothers" on the same parallel as "We Shall Overcome" because it hasn't been sung by as many people in a time of need. I am proud to give voice to working class people when I sing it.

GM: As a multi-instrumentalist do you find it hard to choose an instrument to write a song?

SG: I almost always write on the guitar, which feels most intuitive to me.

I usually write a full lyric and then sit down, strum over a chord progression and flesh out the melody until it feels natural.

I have also written a few songs just by singing, driving in the car without an instrument. I suppose my background unaccompanied singing helps with that.

GM: How do you make the choice?

SG: There have been a few that I wrote on one instrument and I perform on another.

For instance, since "Ain't We Brothers" is an Appalachian story, I decided to start accompanying it with banjo rather than guitar.

One song on the record called "Golden Rule," I wrote it on the autoharp. It seemed later that maybe the autoharp was a little too cheery to accompany a protest song, so I play it on guitar now!

GM: Are you going to be taking the show on the road?

SG: Yes! I'm excited to be doing more touring than I ever have, though still pretty regional.

I'm particularly excited for a show with one of my very favorite songwriters, Si Kahn, which will be held for the Institute of Musical Traditions in Washington D.C. on December 12.

Tickets for that show can be purchased at www.imtfolk.org. I keep my schedule of live dates updated on my website, www.samgleaves.com.

GM: I love the album. It was more powerful than I expected. It nearly left me weeping (only one band has ever achieved this). How do you come back and top it?

SG: Thank you kindly!

I think part of what makes the album good is that I've written the material over the past five years. I think my next project will be a similar blend of traditional and original material, and I've been writing quite a bit.

I'll just try to stay in tune with current stories from our region and see which ones would make a good song!