Kentucky has seen more than its fair share of traditional musicians. “There’s something in the water,” people often say in reference to the state that has produced such luminaries of old-time music as Jean Ritchie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy, Lily May Ledford and Lee Sexton. Indeed, to be a Kentucky musician is to possess a pedigree as prized as that of a Lexington thoroughbred. A spiritual bloodline, this is, one that has connected these names to those of the generation that followed them, including John Harrod, the Reel World String Band and the McLain Family Band.
Old-time is a genre the legendary Mike Seeger has defined as “the old-time name for real mountain-type folk music … sung and played on a variety of acoustic instruments including the guitar and mandolin.” This honest, straightforward music was connected to the working class, Seeger says, sometimes crossing racial lines and rooted in the labor of farmers, miners and other industrial workers, and was often performed in schoolhouses, medicine and minstrel shows and, more informally, on front porches. “It filled the needs of the people,” he has written, “who, after all, created it for themselves.”
Today, throughout Kentucky, that tradition is being carried forward by a new generation of singers and pickers. On small-town front porches and on city streets, in hollers and high rises, these musicians are simultaneously honoring the sounds of their elders while crafting something original.
Sam Gleaves and Joan Shelley are two such musicians who have realized that music is a living, breathing organism whose survival depends on its evolution. By keeping their hands in the past and turning their eyes to the future, both are making plenty of waves in a state already known for its musical tradition.
On the wraparound porch of a house on a quiet street in Berea, Ky., a group of college students are making music. Finals completed, semester papers submitted, they are ready to relax. Some have kicked off their shoes to enjoy this warm evening in early May, and the taps of bare toes on the pine boards provide a light rhythm section to the song being performed.
The tune is “Wildwood Flower,” the old Carter Family standard, but instead of Sara or Maybelle singing lead, 20-year-old Sam Gleaves is trilling those haunting, enigmatic lyrics about a deep love that has been lost. His long, sandy hair falls in his face as he picks out the tune on his guitar — a prized instrument handmade by an artisan in Gleaves’ native Virginia — as others chime in on fiddle and autoharp. Gleaves makes the song his own, finding new notes for the melody and phrasing for the lyrics. But he has made a conscious decision to retain something of the original. The song is written from the feminine point of view, sung about a man who has left the woman, but instead of modifying the pronouns to reflect those of the opposite sex, Gleaves has chosen to keep them intact.
Oh he taught me to love him and called me his flower, he mourns, the emotional weight of the words spreading across his youthful face. Here, in this small town in the Appalachian foothills, “Wildwood Flower” has become something of a gay anthem. “That’s not how they intended it,” Gleaves laughs when he finishes. “But that’s how I sing it.”
The Carters would certainly be pleased with his musicianship, with the precise, elegant way he picks out the melody, an homage to Maybelle’s iconic “Carter scratch” guitar-playing style. And perhaps they would even appreciate his new take on their classic, which harkens back to their own practice of making songs their own.
“When you cross those lines and you start adding personality in your music, that’s when it becomes valuable and when you touch people,” Gleaves says later. “I think there should be personality in traditional music, not just a parody of an old recording.”
His philosophy would no doubt resonate with Shelley and other musicians who are participating in the resurgence of old-time music. “None of us can help changing the music,” explains Gleaves. “That’s just how it works.”
Joan Shelley took a circuitous route to both Kentucky and its music. Born in Michigan, her family moved to Kentucky when she was a young girl, settling in the suburbs just outside of Louisville. Although there were no musicians in her family, there were plenty of music lovers. Her mother was drawn to world music, listening to island dance, Irish music and the Kingston Trio. “Through world music, I got a sense of these different traditions,” she explains. “I especially latched on to the Irish stuff. We had a lot of the Chieftains around.”
These sounds must have soaked in, because she began writing songs at a young age. With the assistance of her mother, Shelley recorded and entered an original song into a contest when she was only 9 years old. When she found an old guitar in the attic, she began teaching herself to play from a poster of guitar chords. She considered music a hobby during her teenage years, a way to while away the time and express herself, but when it came time to choose a college, she went for one located in a town with a vibrant and historic music scene: the University of Georgia in Athens. There, she played her originals in bars and coffeehouses, honing her craft on stage against the sonic backdrop of clinking beer bottles and whirring espresso machines.
Shelley’s return to Louisville after college set into motion a vortex of discovery of old-time music at which she still marvels. “I was singing and performing my own songs, and started collaborating with people who knew about this music, these incredibly weird and dark and gorgeous songs,” she recalls. “It felt like this was the music I had been waiting to hear.”
Songs like Dillard Chandler’s version of “I Wish My Baby Was Born” and tunes by Dock Boggs and Hazel Dickens converted her to the genre. “They were songs sung like they were as old as time,” she told NoDepression.com in 2012. “Some were as old as time. The modal tunes really drew me in.” But her repertoire soon expanded beyond the tragic. “As I got more familiar, I started to like some of the bright songs as much as I liked the dark ones — for example, ‘Fourth of July at the County Fair’ by the Georgia Yellow Hammers. It’s fun but different and crooked, interesting instead of only silly. I wish there was a party I could go to where everyone knew how to sing a song like that together.”
Key figures in Shelley’s growing awareness were Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell, with whom she would go on to form Maiden Radio, a latter-day version of the Carter Sisters specializing in three-part harmony. Shelley and Mize met on a camping trip and recognized an instant connection in their voices. “(We) found that we could blend really well,” Shelley says. “Cheyenne knew Julia through music therapy — both are music therapists — and had been trying to think up a way to sing with her for a while.” Soon, the trio was exchanging Smithsonian Folkways collections and working up the songs “Pretty Saro” and “Weary Blues,” both of which were released on Maiden Radio’s eponymous debut in 2010.
That year also saw the release of By Dawnlight, Shelley’s first solo album, and the beginnings of a friendship and artistic partnership with Daniel Martin Moore, one of Kentucky’s most respected contemporary singer-songwriters who is, in addition to his solo work, known for his collaborations with Jim James and Ben Sollee. Shelley and Moore’s association has been especially productive. When Moore launched his own record label, Ol Kentuck Recordings, in the spring of 2011, Maiden Radio were the first on his roster of artists. Following the release of Lullabies, the trio’s haunting collection of traditional children’s songs, Shelley began recording her second solo project, Ginko, which debuted on Ol Kentuck in April 2012. At the center of that album stands Joan’s dulcet voice, interpreting her own emotive lyrics that lay like gossamer over the music’s elegant arrangements.
“She has a knack for crafting songs that feel like maybe they’ve been rescued from the cusp of being forgotten,” Moore muses, “like she has discovered them in some quiet place or some old book that has been untouched by the decay of industry-based popular music. I think it comes from her being a great student of songs and songwriting, and also holding music as a great love. She has absorbed traditional songs into her bones, and so when she writes she can’t help but bring her songs out with an intuitive sense of what makes things feel classic and timeless.” Shelley’s work, he says, far from being simply a throwback or a lapse into redundancy, is “real and vital” and “can just as easily be danceable, sweet, dark, light.”
Shelley and Moore blended these moods on Farthest Field, their shimmering duo project that appeared in May 2012. “An album that lives entirely in a daydream,” in the words of Shelley, Farthest Field is contemplative in nature, a spare recording showcasing their crystalline harmonies. “The thing that seemed to emerge,” Shelley said upon its release, “was this idea that we could make a voice, one that was both his and mine together. There are only a few lines on this album that aren’t sung by both of us in harmony.”
These days, Shelley is lending her voice and music to The June Brides, a roots band that also features Joe Manning, Anna Krippenstapel, Sean Johnson and John Pedigo. The group’s first album together will be released on Ol Kentuck early next year, Shelley says, and they’ll be touring with Moore this fall.
Her music, she says, has been characterized by “experiments and wanderings,” and yet she always manages to return to her roots, to her comfort zone, “writing tunes … that resonate and feel grounded in a particular way.”
Like Shelley, Sam Gleaves was not raised around old-time music. As a boy growing up in Wytheville, Va., a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he was exposed to bluegrass — a separate genre, but one rooted in old-time — and country music by his father. He grins as he says that country was his bread and butter. “All these great female singers like Emmylou and Dolly, that’s what I cut my teeth on.” For his mother’s part, she preferred singer-songwriters like Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan. “I guess I’m a direct hybrid of those two things,” he says.
Like many teenagers, Gleaves wanted to learn to play the guitar, inspired by the songs of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. When his father gave him one for Christmas, he began to learn on his own, slowly working out how to play and sing at the same time. And then his mother stepped in after hearing of Jim Lloyd, a barber who taught music lessons in his shop 10 miles away. For the gangly teenager with the ever-ready grin, what he encountered in that barbershop was a revelation. “I got exposed to a world of music through Jim,” Gleaves recalls. “That was the first time I heard clawhammer banjo, old-time fiddle tunes and someone singing a ballad unaccompanied. He took me to every gig he played, he taught me lessons, took me to weekly square dances in the summertime, and fiddlers’ conventions.”
At one such gathering, Gleaves met Sheila Kay Adams, an author, storyteller, banjo player and seventh-generation ballad singer who most recently was awarded the 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Medal in recognition of her devotion to and preservation of old-time music and storytelling. Adams became a natural mentor for the burgeoning musician, and even today her influence can be heard in his mournful vocal bends and phrasing on such songs as “A Little While in the Wilderness,” the title track of his 2012 studio album.
Now, looking back on this time in his life, he realizes mentors like Lloyd and Adams were teaching him about more than music. “It made me feel like an insider in the culture I was in, in a way that I’d never experienced before. I understood the history of Appalachia much better by learning the music. It made me feel more at home in my own skin. It made me embrace some of the things that made me different and gave me a lot of community with these older people I played music with — I felt like they totally understood me.”
This acceptance was crucial to Gleaves, who came out as gay as a teenager in a region and musical genre not readily identified as welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Most of his mentors, he says, were unsurprised by his news and “didn’t feel any differently” about him. “They never had to say it,” he explains slowly, searching for the right words to explain their support. “They showed it in tremendously subtle ways.”
For his part, he believes his identity has added layers of meaning to his music. Speaking of his friendship with Adams and Kentucky banjo player Sue Massek — a member of the Reel World String Band and a celebrated solo artist in her own right — Gleaves reveals that he feels an extra kinship to the women who have mentored him. “I feel there’s a stamp of femininity on my music and my voice that I got from being so close to them,” he says. “I’m very proud of that.”
His candor about his orientation goes beyond his refusal to switch pronouns in traditional songs like “Wildwood Flower.” In his own songwriting, Gleaves writes about love and everyday situations with maturity beyond his years, often with a gay theme. His original “Ain’t We Brothers” — written after reading an article about Sam Hall, a gay coalminer from West Virginia who was harassed and threatened on the job — is one that often hits home with audiences when Gleaves sings of having scars on my knuckles/dust on my hands while feeling just like a stranger/in my hometown.
“That’s when I feel satisfied with a song,” he says, “when I feel like it stands up for something I believe in. Of course, I write some songs to just answer some questions that I have on my own journey, because it’s stuck in my head and I need to put it down. But my songs that I’m most pleased with have a social consciousness.”
This awareness is part of what made him a natural candidate to study at Berea College, where he is a senior completing an independent, specially designed major focused on Appalachia and with a concentration in music. When not in class, listening to field recordings in the college’s extensive sound archives, or working at his labor position in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Gleaves can often be found practicing with the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble, in which he performs with two other students as well as director and multi-instrumentalist Al White. He names White as yet another mentor, speaking at length about lessons in harmony singing and playing three-finger banjo. With the ensemble, Gleaves has taken the stage at gigs throughout Appalachia and the South, but also abroad in Ireland. The group leaves for a tour of Japan later this month.
When he graduates in May, Gleaves plans to take “more time to write original music” and to interview older singers of traditional music to preserve their stories. Another album is also in the early planning stages, a follow-up to his most recent Sam Gleaves and Friends, a collection of live recordings.
“I’m always conscious of the fact that I wasn’t raised in a family that played this kind of music, or in a community where I experienced this music from birth,” he replies at first when asked to define the music he plays. But perhaps that recognition has made him cherish it all the more.
On stage at the Emery Theatre in downtown Cincinnati, Joan Shelley takes the stage with Daniel Martin Moore before a near-capacity crowd. They are bringing the sounds of Kentucky across the Ohio River tonight, playing a mixture of originals and old-time ballads. Their rich voices soar through the historic concert hall on “First of August,” a Shelley original about leaving home. Mama knows you’ve gotta go, son, they sing over a sparse duo of acoustic and electric guitars.
The audience is silent, reverent, allowing the meditation to drift over them like a late summer gloaming. Shelley and Moore finish to a hearty round of applause, thanking the audience with broad smiles. A few moments later, they survey the hall from the stage, with Shelley mentioning the incredible acoustics. Inspiration strikes, and the duo launches into one of the most hallowed traditions of old-time music, the sing-along. They coax the audience into joining them in an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Hundreds of voices fill the theater, a wave of sound that crashes over Shelley and Moore on stage. “What a great sound up here,” she says after the choir falls silent. And then she moves on to something new.
Joan Shelley performs Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m., at the Greenhaus (2227 S. Preston St.)