By Ike Adams
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Since its start- up, early last autumn, the Paint Lick Community Arts Center has hosted a few events that its founders, Hal and Yvonne Davis, call “An Evening With....”
Community members and out-of-town guests provide desserts instead of buying tickets. We sit around for half an hour or so and visit over coffee, tea and cookies and then we listen to an artisan talk about his or her work or we listen to local musicians do their thing.
The center only has seating for 64 guests, but it can accommodate up to 75, if the overflow doesn’t mind standing, leaning against the wall, or sitting on the floor. And that’s what happened at both of the musical events Loretta and I have attended.
The first one featured my neighbors, Lewis and Donna Lamb, who are usually performing somewhere in Berea two or three times a week when they aren’t the road someplace in Europe or Asia.
Lewis Lamb is internationally famous for his unique, Appalachian fiddle style and his daughter, Donna, who accompanies him on guitar, has also gained international recognition for her magnificent vocal delivery of old time mountain ballads.
Needless to say, the “sell-out” crowd that showed up for “An Evening with Lewis and Donna Lamb” came as no surprise. That Bell Jackson, one of the best claw-hammer banjo pickers I’ve ever heard, was sitting in with them was icing on the cake.
However, a couple of weeks ago, Loretta commenced insisting that I confirm that our names were on the guest list for the coming Friday’s “Evening with Sam Gleaves and Friends. Frankly, I’d never heard of Sam Gleaves and I was not particularly curious as to whom he kept company with, but the fact of the matter is that there’s not a heck of a lot to do if you want to hang out in Paint Lick on a Friday night.
All Hal Davis had told me was that Sam was “an up and coming mountain musician,” a student at Berea College and a member of the school’s Bluegrass Ensemble. That was more than enough to pique my interest.
Imagine my complete surprise when we walked in and found 60 of the 64 seats already taken, with Lewis and Donna Lamb sitting in the middle of the front row. Loretta scurried to get us two of the remaining seats near the very back of the room while I grabbed our drinks and snacks.
By the time Hal announced it was time for the show to start, it was elbow room only.
Twenty year-old Sam Gleaves walked out front and center with his banjo, surrounded by Jordan Engle on an upright bass taller than he was, Cory Shenk with a flat-top guitar, and Ethan Hamblin with his arms crossed standing to one side and grinning as though he was going to pounce on something. Sam and Friends, it turns out, are all students at Berea College.
Thirty seconds later I knew that we were in for an evening of entertainment we’d never forget.
Suddenly I realized that the music of my youth, the timeless celebration of our culture, through tunes and verses, had found an incredibly strong new voice.
Before the evening was over, Sam had demonstrated an intimate, easy and comfortable proficiency with the claw-hammer banjo, mountain fiddle, flat-top guitar and an amazing auto-harp that he, himself, had built from scratch. There was not a minute during the two-set performance that I didn’t have shivers going up my arms and spine.
Sam’s “mountain tenor” voice is sweet and pure and never seems strained. As Appalachian Author Silas House has already said, “To think that someone so young can understand the ancient tones of this music with such a deep and profound sense of honor makes me have a whole new kind of hope for the future. When Sam sings, we hear the generations before him: the joys, the sorrows, the strength and defeats. When Sam plays, we hear the land that has informed this music, the jagged, dark mountains, the meandering creeks, the even-rowed fields. “
And I say, “Amen, Brother Silas. You’ve hit that nail most squarely on the head.”
Let me encourage you to get on your computer sometime soon and visit Sam Gleaves’ website. www.samgleaves.com to listen to samples of his music. You will also find out how to order his new CD entitled “A Little Time in the Wilderness” and, before you ask, the answer is no, you can’t borrow mine.
Finally, please believe me, this column may be the first but is certainly not the last time you’ll be hearing about Sam Gleaves.