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Ain't We Brothers

Aside from the Russian Olympics, there are few places more difficult to be openly gay than the world of country music. It has remained a stubborn bastion of heterosexual masculinity, and the few openly gay artists to make their mark have tended to be women. In recent decades, most other genres — and their fan bases — have welcomed more diversity, and country/Americana music is long overdue to catch up with the times. Enter Sam Gleaves, an out songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Appalachia.

Steeped in traditional mountain music, Gleaves is no stranger to the hard work, close-knit families, rural beauty and tragedy of coal-mining country. His songs range from original roots country to traditional ballads to old-time tunes. Gleaves' songs walk through familiar country/folk imagery and storylines, while turning the tropes of each genre on their heads: the gay coal miner in "Ain't We Brothers" is first and foremost a hard-working man; "The Golden Rule" at first seems like a classic gospel chestnut but develops into a country-gospel equal-rights anthem; and the beautifully sung a cappella ballad "Johnny" is especially powerful given the simple fact that, on this album, the balladeer and the object of his affection are both men — adding another layer to this traditional tale of forbidden love.

Politics aside, this is a pristine-sounding album with memorable melodies. Part of its success lies in the production. Sonically speaking, you could easily imagine some college dudes at a Texas tailgate party high-fiving along to Gleaves' country songs, and the sound of his old-time tunes would be welcome on any back porch in the mountains. Gleaves is an accomplished musician, handling most of the banjo, guitar and fiddle duties on the album, and he sings in a warm and sincere country tenor. He is tastefully accompanied by industry heavyweights including Tim O'Brien, Marcy Marxer, Cathy Fink, Janis Ian and Laurie Lewis.

With these well-crafted songs, Gleaves challenges his straight listeners to question their assumptions about sexuality and gender roles as they play out in country and related music. In that regard, Ain't We Brothers is a groundbreaking album.