Ben Gilmer: Straight outta Appalachia
Ben Gilmer grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia where he passed his time messing around the farm with his brother and cousins and playing music with family.
Ben’s songwriting reflects a strong sense of place deeply rooted in Central Appalachia – honest songs about hard times, family, and love.
Graffiti: Your third and newest full-length release, ‘Russell County Fair’, is obviously a really personal record for you, and we’ll get to that in just a little bit. First though, what gave you the inspiration to start playing music in the first place? I know that you grew up with music all around you but what made you want to take the direction that you ultimately decided to take?
Gilmer: I grew up in a big family full of musicians. Music was everywhere – home, school, church, festivals, you name it. Most of my early lessons in bluegrass were from the weekly jams at our local barbershop. My paternal grandfather, “Paw,” was sort of the musical patriarch of our family. He played traditional country music and taught his children and most of us grandkids to play, and passed along hand-me-down instruments for us. In our family, your first instrument was likely to be determined by whichever instrument was missing from the family band. Most folks on my mom’s side of the family were also musicians. To this day, we usually end family gatherings with some 4 part harmony gospel singing or bluegrass pickin’ or both. Music has been a constant in my life for as far back as I can remember.
Though I cut my musical teeth on bluegrass and country music, as a teenager, I started listening to more southern rock like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, and even a good bit of commercial country and pop music. My cousin and I started a country and classic rock band when we were 14 or 15. Our band name was ironically called Reckless, though our gigs were far from it: school picnics, supervised high school parties, and the like. Everyone in Russell County knew that we’d probably play Freebird at least twice at any given gig. [Lord help.]
I started writing songs in high school but really fell in love with songwriting in college. There, I was fortunate to become close friends with a few incredibly creative songwriters. In addition to pushing me to step out on a ledge to write from my heart, they also turned me onto folks like Darrell Scott, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Ryan Adams. Even Bob Dylan was new to me in college.
Since college, including a five-year stint on the west coast, I have continued to write a lot of songs and play in various bands. I guess most people would call my music Americana music, which is essentially just a blend of a handful of American roots music genres like country, folk, blues, bluegrass, etc.
It’s funny how things come back around. I can clearly remember the days when I would dread playing some church picnic or retirement home gig with my Paw, uncles and cousins. Now the music I write and play isn’t too awfully far from where I started. I still fumble around trying replicate my Paw’s licks on his pedal steel guitar. I try to slide into harmony parts the way my aunt does it. I still play that G run that my uncle first showed me. I always try to keep a loose wrist on my strumming hand like Joe the barber taught me to do about 20 years ago.
I know this sounds cliche, but I think the direction that my music has taken is really just a product of my experiences. It’s not hard for me to trace the stories and sounds in my songs back through the stories and sounds of my life and heritage.
Graffiti: How does the work on this record compare to the previous releases? ‘Russell County Fair’ is your third album. Did you go into this with clear ideas about how you wanted this album to stand apart and on its own?
Gilmer: I believe the songs on ‘Russell County Fair’ are more mature, both musically and lyrically, than my other two albums. I think this album reflects the miles that I have traveled and the perspective that I have gained since my earlier recordings. Plus, this album is about my home. I guess it makes sense that writing about a place that carries such weight and emotion and spirit would draw out more honest songs.
I’ve wanted to do this project for a long time. I kind of looked down one day and realized that I had 80% of the songs already, and the other 20% came rushing out of me pretty soon after that. I had a general sound in mind from the start for most of these songs, but I really just wanted to get my buddies in the studio to shape the songs with me. My bandmates are some of my closest friends and also some of my favorite musicians. I really trust and admire the music they make, so it was really special for me to incorporate their ideas into the songs. I especially loved having my brother on the album. We’ve been playing together since we were kids and he really added that special sauce to this album.
Graffiti: What did you want to do with this new release that you feel you might not have before now? Whenever an artist is asked about their newest work they usually always feel that it’s their best to date, or else it wouldn’t have been released, presumably. Then again, some get all the way to the point of release and suddenly realize that some ideas that were used maybe shouldn’t have been tweaked or experimented with.
Gilmer: I am proud of this album and I do think that this is my best work yet. I believe that it took leaving Appalachia and moving back again to help pull some of the songs and stories together. On the west coast, I would still write songs about home, but I found it hard to complete the picture from a distance. I think a lot of perspective comes from leaving and coming back again.
Graffiti: What made you decide to record and release an album that is as vivid and honest as ‘Russell County Fair’ tends to be?
Gilmer: I’m not sure that I made a conscious decision to write these songs in any particular way. In life and in song, I have been trying to push myself to be true to who I am and what I feel. I think the songs on Russell County Fair largely reflect that effort. With a lot of these songs, I tried to tap into the tension, fear, and hope that comes with living in a region in change. There are some lighthearted and playful songs on the album, but, those too are still grounded in actual experiences and places.
Graffiti: I’ve read that what you wanted to do with ‘Russell County Fair’, was to write an honest album about the good and bad that is encountered in the rural Appalachian experience. Do you have a particular perspective that you prefer to write from? Maybe from your own as an on-looker or a story told from the point-of-view of a character or individual who’s had that particular experience?
Gilmer: I think most of my songs are written from my perspective – either as an on-looker or the person that is experiencing it firsthand. I’ll often use characters or subjects or even process to convey a theme or feeling. My song “Roof Bolt Man” is probably a good example of that. The song tells the story of our changing coal communities, with the coal miner working to hold up the mines in a literal sense, but also holding up the community in a more figurative sense. I guess I often gravitate toward songs that use characters to tell stories.