Haunting Banjo Tune Inspired by Coal Miner's Struggle

Jan 22, 2015

Songwriter Sam Gleaves was inspired by the story of Sam Williams, a former coal miner who was harassed at work for being gay. 

Sam Gleaves is a musician who grew up playing old time mountain music in Southwestern Virginia. His songs have a high lonesome, old-time sound. Their roots are deep in Appalachia, and the stories they tell explore some bitter truths about how hard it can be to be different here. I met up with Gleaves at his home in Berea, KY to talk about one song in particular.

Sam Gleaves says he’s been drawn to music since he was kid in Rural Retreat, Virginia. He loved to listen to Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks. "I was always interested in songs that told stories about real people and real emotion. So I was drawn to folk music.”

Sam Gleaves. Photo by Susi Lawson.

When he was 12, he got a guitar and started playing along with the radio, picking out the chords.“I'd been teaching myself to play the guitar for about a year or so, and my mom said 'there's a fella over there in Rural Retreat that teaches music lessons in his barber shop.' So I went in his barber shop for the first time. There were two young men playing an old time dance tune. And I had never seen that, up close and personal in that way. Just to think it was just two guys it was really amazing to me.”

Sam Gleaves started taking lessons from that barber, an old time musician whose name was Jim Lloyd. Last spring Sam graduated from Berea college in Berea, KY, where he studied oral history and played in the college's bluegrass band. Now, he's turning his attention towards something other than traditional old time music. He's producing an album of original songs called Aint We Brothers. The title song is based on the true story of a coal miner from West Virginia who was harassed and threatened at work after his co-workers discovered he was gay.

I was born here just the same as you/ Another time, another day

I'm sure the good Lord took his time/ Making each of us just this way

I walked beside you step by step/ And it never crossed my mind

That I would grow up one of the different kind

“I wanted to write the song about what it means to be a man. LGBTQ folks in Appalachia have a particularly complex identity because because you have modern queer culture, which is very urban, and very young feeling. And then there's what we think about Appalachian culture- having deep roots and being rural. But then you have people that belong to both of those identities. Like as a gay man who grew up in southwestern Virginia, I have to claim my whole self,” said Gleaves.

The coal miner who inspired his song recently sent Sam Gleaves an email, letting him know how much he enjoyed hearing the song. The coal miner, also named Sam, used to be known as Sam Hall. He married his partner Burley Williams in D.C. back in 2010, and recently took his husband's name. Sam and Burley Williams live in a small town a few miles outside of Charleston W.Va.

Sam Williams is 32 years old, tall and muscular, with hands that are chiseled from the seven years they've spent cutting coal from these hills. But he's not a coal miner anymore. He quit Massey energy in 2010 after working as a miner for seven years. I spent an evening at their home. At their kitchen table, I ate a nectarine while Burley Williams cooked burritos. Sam Williams talked about what happened when his coworkers found out he was gay.

“Not that I ever even told them that I was gay. They just watch, follow, see me come out of a bar, automatically stereotype me. I faced a lot of things in the mines. I've been told that they hope all faggots die. There's a fine line between someone saying that they're joking and somebody looking you in the eye and saying it and knowing that that's what they meant. But when it's your supervisors it's a whole different ball game.”

Then I asked him about Sam Gleaves' song. Williams said he thinks it's a very powerful song, especially the verse that goes:

First things first I'm a Blue-collared man

With scars on my knuckles, dust on my hands

Probably wouldn't have ever known

I've got a man waiting on me at home

“Yes, that relates to me so much because I know that Burley was waiting for me at home. He'd wait for me until I got in and then he'd have dinner waiting on me, even if I got in at 3:00 in the morning,” said Williams.

Burley and Sam Williams were married in D.C. in 2010. Last year when same sex marriage became legally recognized in West Virginia, Sam took his husband's name.

He and Burley have lived together since 2009. The first years they were dating, Sam Williams was dealing with the worst of the harassment and threats from his co-workers. Burley says there were nights when he feared for Sam’s life.

“And they messed with his vehicle, like scratched 'Quit Fag',” says Burley Williams. Sam's co-workers “took the wheel weights off his tires. It was nerve-wracking because when he didn't come home, I had to go out drive to the mines and go search for him. I'm thinking someone's shot him on the side of the road.”

Sam's co-workers even came to their house late at night to bang on their door. To protect himself and Sam, Burley bought his very first gun. He also got a concealed weapon permit, in case they were ever confronted when they went out in public.

“You always know that there's hate out there. There's individually people that never will be accepting of gay individuals. So you do have to take precautions to protect yourself and your family and your loved ones,” said Burley Williams.

Sam Williams relaxing with his two dogs Bella and Lacy.

Sam Williams finally had had enough, and he quit his job in 2010. He sued his former employer, Massey Energy for sexual harassment.

He couldn’t sue for discrimination, because in West Virginia it’s legal to discriminate against people who are gay. State law prohibits discriminating against people on the basis of sex or race – but the law doesn’t include sexual orientation. The same is true of other states in Appalachia, like Kentucky and Virginia.

Andrew Schneider is the Executive Director of Fairness West Virginia, a gay rights advocacy group. The group is trying to pass a law that would make it illegal to discriminate against an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It's particularly, I think, risky now, that we have marriage equality, because you can get married on Sunday and fired on Monday. Marriage, in some ways, makes our relationships in the gay community more visible. You are more prone to having your picture of your loved one on your desk. You're more likely to wear your wedding ring. You want to talk with your co-workers about what you did with your family over the weekend. We never expected we would get marriage before we got non-discrimination," said Andrew Schneider."

Even without that legal protection, Sam Williams was able to get a settlement from his former employer. In 2011, Massey Energy was bought out by Alpha Natural Resources, and the new owners agreed to settle Sam's case out of court. Alpha declined to comment on the case, but they did send an email saying the company “is committed to a workplace that is free of discrimination and where all employees, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and with respect.”

Still, Sam Williams says he doesn’t think it would be safe to go back to mining. Now he works as a manager at a Dollar General.

“I do miss running good coal. I miss being top dogs on the coal crew- before everything started getting more violent. If there was a perfect world out there I'd love to be a coal miner again. But it'll never happen again...more than likely. But it was fun.”

But it wasn't fun once he had to look over his shoulder all the time, worried that somebody he worked with would follow through on their threats to kill him.

Even years later, Sam Williams still seems hurt that the people he thought were his close friends turned against him. In the song about him, the coal miner has a conversation with his co-workers. In the song, the miner tells them he's still the true West Virginian he always was. That doesn't change just because he's gay.

To tell you the truth, I don’t want to fight

I just want to say one thing outright to you:

Ain’t we flesh and blood too?

And ain’t we brothers too?

Sam Gleaves is currently recording his debut album Aint We Brothers in Nashville, TN. The album is being produced by Cathy Fink and will be released this May.

Our story on Sam Gleaves and Sam Williams was reported by Roxy Todd, in collaboration with a new podcast WVPB is working on called Us & Them. Us & Them explores how Americans are divided along cultural fault lines. Listen for new episodes this spring.