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Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes

Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes – 2017 (Community Music)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes

Armed simply with their voices and the stringed instruments characteristic of traditional Appalachian music, Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes bring fresh attention to that nearly-forgotten American genre on the young duo's eponymous collaborative release.

With only two original songs - one contribution from each artist - this 14-song collection, which was produced by revered folksinger, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Marcy Marxer, serves as a tribute to songwriters of Appalachian heritage, with a focus on protest songs and strong females.

The duo's spirited take on Tom T. Hall's "I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew" is an excellent example of the former. This pleasant but biting piece of social commentary, featuring a very basic acoustic arrangement and nice harmony vocals on the chorus, touches on capitol punishment, treatment of the sick and poor and the widening gap between those who have and those who don't.

Gleaves and Hughes also apply a pretty veneer to an important message with their stunning rendition of "Bread and Roses." Originally written by poet James Oppenheim and championed by both the labor and women's movements, this version is notable for the harmony vocals used throughout, including the brief and powerful a cappella break in the final of four stanzas.

Ola Belle Reed, a native of Ashe County, N.C., is both a major figure in Appalachian music and a strong female songwriting voice. Her "Tear Down The Fences" is an excellent example of a protest song, making it a thoughtful and picture-perfect addition to this collection.

Thematically, the two original songs fit nicely. Gleaves's "Stockyard Hill" is a tapestry of stories and memories passed down from his great aunt, including both her personal philosophies and her recollections of a simple Appalachian life - one that included weekly community gatherings to pick instruments and sing.

Hughes's "When We Love" offers an alternative to the negativity and divisiveness plaguing our modern American culture. With thinly-veiled references to President Trump and the country's red and blue divide, this is as timely of a protest song as you are likely to find.

In addition to important themes and a thoughtfully-curated song selection, this album features some great picking and outstanding duet vocals. Tracks like "Mama Paint Me A Picture" and the achingly beautiful "Living With Memories," a song written by Janette Carter of the famed Carter Family, showcase the way in which Gleaves and Hughes have formed a sibling-like bond when it comes to vocals. Also, tracks like the playful "Well I Guess I Told You Off" and the fiddle tunes "Sleepy Eyed John" and "Georgia Row" showcase the duo's instrumental dexterity.