Songs and Stories

Slaid Cleaves manages intimate tales while keeping up with a changing music business

For more than 20 years, Slaid Cleaves has struggled to make himself heard, releasing 10 albums that slowly but surely have attracted critical acclaim and won him a reputation among fans and fellow musicians for starkly beautiful, literary song craft. His music has been compared to the writing of William Faulkner, and he has been celebrated in prose by Stephen King.

With artful intensity, his songs recognize the little guys, the underdogs and blue-collar workers disillusioned by the American dream, many of them still hung over from multiple economic crises. But most of his characters are resilient and tough, continuing to persevere despite discarded dreams.

"I'm not a confessional songwriter, by any means. I tell stories about other people," Cleaves said in a recent interview.

"Obviously, my own experiences add vividness to some of my songs. But it is not my goal to tell you what I feel. I want to tell you about how you feel. My job is to articulate people's struggles."

Aware that he was risking sounding precious, he continued: "The songs can be healing pieces of art, if they are successful. The hope is that someone recognizes their troubles in those of the characters."

It should be noted that Cleaves said all this while on the phone from a laundromat in rural Maine. He and his wife, Karen, were in the midst of a three-week vacation at their off-the-grid cabin, and it was his task that day to go into town for groceries and to wash clothes.

Back in civilization, Cleaves will visit Tucson for a gig Wednesday night, Aug. 28, in Suite 147 at Plaza Palomino. It's part of the Rhythm & Roots fall concert series.

Not surprisingly, music played an integral part in the life of young Slaid Cleaves, who listened to his parents' Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Beatles records when he was growing up in Maine. He wanted to play guitar as a child, but his folks persuaded him to take piano lessons.

Cleaves finally picked up the guitar in college—he majored in English and philosophy at Tufts University—by which time he also had discovered Bruce Springsteen, who remains an inspiration to this day.

"When you form yourself from the primordial ooze, he is the guy to emulate, the one who becomes your hero. He is the bedrock for rock 'n' roll storytelling."

As a teenager, like most of us of a certain age, he soaked up Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.

"When I was 16, The River came out, but I was a piano player still. And then came Nebraska, which showed me really how powerful and moving and arresting one guy with a guitar could be."

Cleaves and his childhood buddy Rod Picott—now a noted singer-songwriter with whom Cleaves still collaborates—started a band called the Magic Rats, named after a character in the immortal Springsteen song "Jungleland."

Cleaves also did a little busking after college on the streets of Portland, Maine, before relocating with then-girlfriend Karen to the musical hotbed of Austin, Texas, 22 years ago.

"We moved out in 1991. I was totally under the spell of Joe Ely and Lucinda Williams. It was the perfect place for me to learn my craft and build my career. And I was 2,000 miles from my family and any distractions.

"It was both enthralling and just as much intimidating there. Even if you weren't the most established artist, there were a lot of ways to enter the scene, with open mic nights and little intimate gigs. It's a really supportive town, with good radio stations that support local artists, and with fellow songwriters who help you not fall through the cracks."

His latest album, Still Fighting the War, is a quiet masterpiece only 2 months old. The title track concerns a shattered Iraq war veteran who can't leave the battle behind him. If you download the song, all proceeds from its sale go to Operation Homefront, an organization that provides assistance to wounded vets and the families of service members.

Intimate stories are his forte on Still Fighting the War, the title of which also serves as a metaphor for the spirit of perseverance in any context. His songs concern the salt-of-the-earth working class—tunes such as "Hometown USA," "Gone," "Texas Love Song" and two killer songs written with Picott, "Rust Belt Fields" and "Welding Burns." He also includes "God's Own Yodeler," a tribute to the late country singer and iconic Texan Don Walser.

For good measure, the album includes guest appearances by singers such as Jimmy LaFave, Terri Hendrix, Harmoni Kelley McCarty and Eliza Gilkyson.

The primary producer on Still Fighting the War is guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who plays all over the album and, by the way, will join Cleaves on stage at Plaza Palomino.

He said Newcomb has been a fixture of the Austin music for more than 25 years. "He's a legend down there, a couple of years younger than me. He came to town in the mid-1980s and was the hot young guitar slinger in a bunch of bands. Probably the most well-known was Loose Diamonds."

The music business has changed drastically since Cleaves started working in it. He was, however, an early adopter when it came to the Internet.

"I think the Internet has changed every level of building a career. Everybody's career is unique and if they are careful they can focus and direct it to the right audience. It helped me a lot I as came of age in music.

"As soon as I got the chance, I bought the domain name I wasn't going to miss out on that. At first, I was posting these stories, which you now call blogs. It really helped level the playing field in the late 1990s and early 2000s."

He actually wasn't sure he should release his new album on CD, initially thinking to go straight to MP3. He relented, however, because he still likes to have discs to sell at performances.

"I was wrestling with the idea of making a CD or not. But there's some value in a product. It's like a souvenir, even if you rip it to your computer later. We put a lot of effort into the package so it's not just a physical delivery system for the music. It's an artifact in its own right."

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