Sam Gleaves and Ethan Hamblin
Heritage, Sexuality and Country Music As An Axis for Life:
A Down Home Diva Cosmology
written on the Down Home Diva’s two year anniversary, January 18, 2014
Sam Gleaves (l) and Ethan Hamblin (r) are The Down Home Divas
Verse 1: Definitions
Down Home Diva (dau̇n ˈhōm ˈdē-və) proper noun, abbrev. DHD – a confident, strong-willed, and often outspoken individual, shamelessly proud of heritage, and able to use all gifts for the greater good. The DHD is often self reliant, loud, frustrated, inspirational, high-powered, and larger-than-life. Though DHDs always keeps everyone’s best interests at heart, they are often well versed in the art of “talking bad about people.” The DHD is either gay or a gay magnet. The Down Home Diva is frequently Appalachian or Southern, but DHDs are from all places and come in all sizes, creeds, genders, colors, and faiths.
Fabu-lachian (ˈfa-byə -ˈlā-ch-ən) proper noun, adjective – fabulous and Appalachian, a term used by the country queer community to embrace their experiences where gender identity, sexuality and heritage are one.
Verse 2: Origins
All peoples have their creation stories, and we Down Home Divas are no different. The story we are about to tell is out of control, so nestle in your afghan and hold on to your coffee cup. It came to pass that two great warrioresses were born to separate families, in separate lands, in the shadow of separate mountains. They did not know it then, but these two were sisters and the Spirit would bring them together one day. These two learned the wisdom of their foremothers, to make their dumplings, to do their dances, to sing their songs. The sisters were wild as a mountain stream swelled up with a big rain and the lands they belonged to could not hold them. They were no prisoners, yet it was time for their Exodus. Honey, nobody gets to the Promised Land without becoming a member of the Pack-Yer-Shit-And-Get Club. With the blessing of their elders, the sisters took to the wing and swooped down in a little haven in the foothills of the Cumberlands called Berea College. They found kind people in the wilderness who helped them struggle through, but the sisters longed for each other. It wasn’t long before they united and when they did, there was a bottle of wine, an Albert E. Brumley songbook and the Spirit. The Down Home Divas were together at last . . .
When we sisters first met, there was repulsion and conflict. It was like two great (gay) storm fronts had collided in the room. These dark and threatening skies were like the few seconds that precede the announcement of Best Female Vocalist each year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Just as tension creeps across the Botoxed faces of those country queens, when Ethan Hamblin and Sam Gleaves met, there was concern. We were two high-powered individuals on a crusade to assert ourselves for the Movement on the Berea College campus. When faced with one another, we wondered who would reign. But all that mess became small potatoes when we cracked that bottle of wine and began to sing. Ethan asked, “Do you know ‘The Sweetest Gift?’” Sam strummed a chord on the guitar and said, “Umm, yessssssss! That old Hazel and Alice song?” Just as Hazel and Alice did, just as Naomi and Wynonna did, our voices were different, but melded all the same. We knew it was destiny. When baritone and tenor blended, we felt that we had the power to sustain each other. Seldom do you find someone you can be real with on this Earth! We discovered our sisterhood: we are one in our heritage and we’re massive flaming queers. And so, as it happens in the heavenly phenomena, there was a great explosion and stars were born.
Our work began as a humor article in the Berea College student newspaper in January 2012, but it has since grown to encompass an ideology, a calling, a ministry, a daily battle to be ourselves in an opposing world and help others do the same. We approach life as Down Home Divas. We draw strength from the Divas that came before us, first from our mothers. The only rule in Valerie Sandlin Hamblin’s home was to, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Deanna Lynn Bradberry, affectionately known as D-Bird, always repeated to her sons, “You are free to be whoever you want to be, but you must be happy, healthy, responsible, and have health insurance.”
When the bigwigs came to close the Gays Creek Post Office and erase its history, Ethan stood by his Nan Geraldine and his great-aunt Anna Lee at the community hearing. They all guarded the door of the old post office as if to not let “the closer” enter. When the floor was opened for comments, the sisters spoke up. Silver hair put up in buns, wearing identical pink blouses and denim capris, they spoke with one voice: “It’s a shame and disgrace that you want to close this post office. I do not understand why you are trying to destroy our community. You say this building’s not up to code, but you are wrong. Anybody that needs to use the bathroom can go behind the building or up the hill to my house and if this building needs an air conditioner, I will go get that window unit that I took to my house and put it right here in this building. Ain’t nobody died here yet! Well, I guess that’s what we get for putting you Republicans in office!”
Sam will never forget that one Easter when his grandmama Brenda took a stand for the Lord. The spread of food was put out before the family and Granddaddy Bo leaned forward in his jovial way and said, “Well B, I believe this gravy could use a little damn salt!” Silence fell upon the table; the family waited with baited breath. Moments seemed as hours until Brenda set down her fork on the floral-patterned plate and said softly, “Bo. It is Easter. Jesus is risen. And I will not have you talking at my table that way!” This is how the women of our families taught us to face life, to break down and be strong at the right moments, to do what needs done. In close kitchens and on well-kept front porches, we became women too.
Meanwhile, on the wild side of life, we became men and realized that a strapping man walking by in a tight pair of Wranglers just did something for us. We had worked outside with our fathers, gone shooting and rode in the cabs of pickup trucks enough to know we were mountain boys. But Ethan turned his baby blanket into a Southern Belle gown and became part of a recipe exchange with other Perry County women. In elementary school, Sam was content to play his keyboard and sing every word of “In My Own Little Corner” and “Colors of the Wind,” then was carried through middle school by Tina Turner and Stevie Nicks. There was confusion. Both of us felt like we could not fully realize our selfhood. The Appalachian definition of masculinity was narrow and constricting and with our flooding emotions and desire to express ourselves, we were busting those barriers wide open. We were, as mountain goddess Lee Smith has written, walking in our bodies as queens. We are made in our fathers’ images, but we are fair and tender ladies too.
In our families, the roles of breadmaker and breadwinner were always intertwined with divorce, health issues and hard times. We were caught somewhere between the good ole boy and the good ole girl and we had to come out sometime. Soon. It was obvious. We came out to our immediate families and contrary to broader societal expectations, we were embraced with open arms. In this life, we are “out, proud, and country loud,” sign-carrying, protest-singing queers (Jonita Horn, Martin County, Kentucky). At this point in life, we are more upset when people do not know that we are gay. There is only one complication. We cannot come out to our grandparents nor introduce them to any of our potential partners.
Let us underscore the importance of grandparents in our lives and why our gayness is a little weird for them. Our grandparents give to us endlessly, in wisdom, in frozen quarts of homegrown fruits and vegetables and good old country manners. They taught us the importance of people, knowing who you come from and taking time to carefully remember the web of friends and chosen family. For them, ties to our native counties always spoke louder than the many pressures to leave. We admire them, we support them, and we cherish the value of their experience. Every visit features the awkward questions. “How’s your love life?” “Don’t you want a girlfriend?” Bless their hearts, they’re just trying to help . . . and stay up to date on the family affairs. Our grandparents spend much more time on Facebook than we do, sharing Christian love, exchanging recipes and patrolling for our safety. The grandmothers like every picture we’ve ever been tagged in and the grandfathers leave no trace of their extensive studies. Because of these guardian angels, we watch our steps when we’re online. They taught us to be discreet, to not tell everything you know and choose wisely who you tell it to. Our grandparents are our true friends, meaning that they know things we don’t even know ourselves, most of which is embarrassing and safe in their keeping. If they ask, we will tell the truth. We know that they know that we are gay. We know that their love for us will never shift. These terms are not always easy but love isn’t always spoken.
Verse 3: Country Queens
The Oracle at Delphi (and Fancy’s heart-shaped locket as told about in the gospel of Reba) said, “To Thine Own Self Be True.” Dolly Rebecca Parton, The Oracle of the Smokies, is known to expound upon this theme of self-actualization. In a 1974 interview with Barbara Walters, Dolly proclaimed, “I don’t like to be like everybody else. I’ve often made the statement that I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable; that’s the easiest thing in the world to do! I’m very real where it counts and that’s inside and as far as my outlook on life and the way I care about people and the way I care about myself and the things that I care about, but I chose to do this. Show business is a moneymaking joke and I’ve just always liked telling jokes.” Y’all might have seen that episode of Oprah where they talked about “The Secret,” but we’ll do you one better. The mantra of country music is Be Funny, Tell Your Story and Have Faith.
Country Music and the True Country Queens chart our roadmap to Heaven, sustaining, explaining and regaining stability in the midst of life’s trials. Virginia Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette and saved us all, Praise God! As she came into herself, she was faced with skepticism, five troublesome marriages and as Brotherboy said in the hit movie Sordid Lives, “then they exhumed her.” Tammy’s determination could not be broken: “[My father] would sit and hold me when he was blind, before he died at the piano, and place my fingers on the keys and laugh and, you know, he loved music very much. And it really inspired me. When I first came to Nashville and everybody was saying ‘No, no, we don't want you,’ and I was getting turned down repeatedly, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, ‘But if my father were alive, he would say, you know, 'Go on. Try.'"
And there is Loretta. What can we say? Loretta’s hard-hitting female anthems and songs of inspiration on The Wilburn Brothers Show have always spoken to us, which lead us to pray:
Who art in the mountains,
Hallowed be thy name
Holler deep and world-wide thy songs be sung,
Thy will BETTER BE done,
In Berea as it is in Butcher Holler.
Give us this day a song to soften our struggles,
and forgive us our bitchfits
As we forgive those who cause them.
Lead us not from thy sequins,
But deliver us from Taylor Swift
For thine is the ridgetop,
The beauty shop,
The bourbon polished off,
Our redemption forever.
And all God’s Fabu-lachians say,
Verse 4: Global Diva Revolution
What we’ve been telling about is how we became activists, sisters, singers, sons, students, teachers, Mouths of the South, Fabu-lachians. It’s an ongoing journey and it’s not exclusive to us. Being and becoming a Down Home Diva means having a foot in two worlds and confronting that confusion. Your inner Diva won’t shine through until you become self-assured and open yourself up. Hazel Dickens, voice of working people in West Virginia and the world over, said, “I think we all go through life and I doubt that we ever know who we really are or what all we have inside. We just have to get to the point where we can let go, and let go enough to give something back to the world or tell somebody exactly how you feel.” Those of you outside the Amen Corner may be thinking, “This has gotten a little preachy for my taste,” but sweetie, this is an altar call. We believe that the gospel of the Divas extends beyond us country queers. Across the globe, small differences create great divides between us, and there is hurting. When identities clash, human beings must find a way to thrive. We’ve found our way, but it is not the only way. When it comes to negotiating stereotypes facing gay men and Appalachian people, we broke some, embraced some and wrote the book on it. We’re not the first, we’re not the last, and we are ready for a change. We are looking forward to the Beloved Community, where all are one and one are all. Until that glad morning, we’ll be writing, singing and being ourselves.
Ethan Hamblin and Sam Gleaves
Sam Gleaves is a folksinger and musician from Wytheville, Virginia. He preserves mountain culture in performance and documentary media and will graduate with a degree in Folklore from Berea College in spring, 2014. He believes that "God gave Noah the rainbow sign," and he lives his life by the words of Down Home Diva Minnie Pearl, “Hooooooooowwwwdy! I'm just so proud to be here!”
Ethan Hamblin was raised on Gays Creek in Perry County, Kentucky. His passion is community building through youth leadership engagement, interfaith work and intergenerational collaboration. He will graduate with a degree in Appalachian Studies from Berea College in spring, 2014. His values consist of the three Fs: "food, fun and fellowship," and he lives by the words of his Aunt Robin: "Life should not be a bowl of gravy, it should be a jar of salsa."
Read more about Sam and Ethan at their Down Home Divas webpage.