Berea Spotlight

Sam Gleaves Talks Berea and Mountain Music

Posted on by WC Kilby

Sam Gleaves’ casual and cheery demeanor accounts for his nicknames, “Smiling Sam” and “Sunshine Sam,” as he is known around campus, both for his friendly nature and yellow hair.

A typical college student, he can be found playing board games into the early morning hours with his friends and often goes out on the weekends to watch the local bands play at neighborhood restaurants. Adjusted and sociable as he is, though, it is easy to see that Sam is not your normal college freshman. For instance, he enjoys spending his free time at the Special Collections archives in Hutchins Library listening to original recordings of traditional music. As well, he can often be found at the local park jamming on his banjo with his friends Jordan, on guitar, and Myra, on fiddle. His driving and broad passion for music makes him stand out at Berea as a force of talent and knowledge about the craft.

A first-year sophomore, Sam is an Appalachian Studies major with a Concentration in Appalachian Music. “I am absolutely in love with mountain music,” Sam explains, referring to both the bluegrass music of the region as well as the folk music of such greats as Jean Ritchie, Sheila Kay Adams, and popular artists Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. “Music kind of plays two roles for me,” he posits, “I have an academic interest in it, but it’s also a great release.”

Sam was first introduced to Berea College through a high school guidance counselor who suggested he apply for one of Berea’s Pinnacle Scholar Awards of Excellence. Sam applied for the award in the area of music and won it. After that, he says, “[The college] put me and my dad up, and we came and toured the campus. That was it for me.” So he wrote his essay (about state park service projects he had participated in) and prepared for his interview. “I went back to the little room for the interview, shaking like a leaf,” he recalls, “but the guy was so warm and friendly and kind, you know, and we ended up talking about Jean Ritchie’s music for a good while.”

‘I meet people here who I feel like I’ve known my whole life, but they’re from all across the United States, and the world, really.’

When Sam received his letter in the mail, it included a certificate for his four-year tuition scholarship, historically awarded to all Berea students. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” says Sam, “because I did not take that gift for granted.”

As far as the town itself, Sam doesn’t find Berea much different from Wythe County, Virginia, where he’s from. “When I see people on the street,” he explains, “I greet them the same as I would back home.” However, because of Berea’s unique commitments to interracial and international education, there is a much more diverse population to greet. Sam comments, “I meet people here who I feel like I’ve known my whole life, but they’re from all across the United States, and the world, really.” That includes his guitar-playing best friend Jordan Engel, who hails from Rochester, New York.

Since coming to Berea, Sam cites his Bluegrass Ensemble director Al White as a great musical influence and teacher. His guidance is paving the way for Sam’s future career path: to be a music teacher. “I guess my long term goal is to play here [through college],” he muses, “and then travel around the region, maybe do a residency in the public school system.” Wherever he lands, though, he’s taken something from Berea. As he puts it, “I’ve found the most in common with people who I thought were so different from me. It’s really shown me a lot about the threads that tie us together as people. “

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