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Sam Gleaves

Ain't We Brothers – 2015 (Community Music)

Reviewed by Larry Stephens

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CDs by Sam Gleaves

At first glance your impression may be you're about to hear Appalachian music, an implication it will have strong ties to old-time music. While "Working Shoes" doesn't have a ripping banjo intro, it can be heard as mainstream bluegrass. A strong guitar backing with a haunting fiddle plus traditional lyrics - grandparents, picket lines at the mines, grief, hard times - this is a good cut. What is unusual is almost hidden at the end of song.

When the man I love comes home at night with coal dust on his sleeve
And I watch our son come running on little wobbly knees.
Then I start to thinking just what I've got to lose
As I watch my little man try on his daddy's working shoes.

It is not unusual for some traditional songs that have a woman's perspective to be sung by a man with no change in lyrics. For example, there's the Carter Family song "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" as sung by Mac Wiseman. There never seemed to be an inference of sexuality in those performances. Clearly, this is different. Gleaves, who wrote or arranged all the songs, is introducing a gay perspective into his music. An individual's connection to a song may be the music, the lyrics or both, so Gleaves is taking some risks, but you have to applaud his courage for doing so. The title song (dedicated to a man, implying it is real life) is openly about the challenge of being discovered as a gay man in a rural, mining community. The lyrics are painful.

Some cuts reflect the Appalachian sound. "My Singing Bird" features a frailing banjo as the sole instrument behind Gleaves' singing. It's well done, a good approach. "Johnny" fits the same Appalachian definition, done a capella. This is a traditional song, likely meant from a woman's perspective ("Johnny, oh Johnny, you are my darling, Like a red rose that blooms in the garden."), but taking on a new meaning in the context of this CD. Gleaves goes a different musical path with "Come Into Your Own" featuring a steel guitar and fiddles. Gleaves' voice is sometimes a bit thin, as heard on this cut, but it's still good listening.

"Just Like Jordan" treads some even more dangerous ground on the Christian front.

But, when I look at you, asleep in my sheets, (a reference to a gay partner)
I wonder if heaven could ever compete.
I would lose sight of everything to make you see
You're just like Jordan to me.

Gleaves is joined by Tim O'Brien (harmony, "Ain't We Brothers"), Laurie Lewis (harmony, "Just Like Jordan"), Missy Raines and Janis Ian (harmony, "Angel In the Ashes"). This is good listening, good music.