Slaid Cleaves lives in two states: the Maine of his childhood and the Texas of his adulthood. These days he and his wife, Karen, bounce back and forth between their houses in Cherryfield, Maine — “the blueberry capital of the world,” Cleaves notes — and Wimberley, the Texas Hill Country town that reminds them of the laid-back, bohemian Austin of the 1990s.
You can’t understand Cleaves or his music without recognizing the influence of both the northernmost state in New England and the southernmost state in the American West. Maine is where he first became a musician. Texas is where he finally matured as a songwriter. Even now one can detect in his songs both the blue-collar grittiness of the Rust Belt and the open-spaces possibility of the Sun Belt.
Those two worlds collide on “Second Hand,” a key track on Cleaves’ latest album, Together Through the Dark. Co-written with Adam Carroll, the song opens with a ringing electric-guitar riff from the album’s producer, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and snare-drum hits from engineer Pat Manske. It sounds more than a little like Bruce Springsteen, and that connection is reinforced by a reference to the narrator’s blue-collar father smoking in a church basement and lamenting “all the years he wasted.” The link is made explicit when the narrator recalls his youth, when “feeling brave and free, we were singing ‘Born To Run.’”
At the top of the chorus, though, the blue van that his college band once drove to gigs now sits in his Texas front yard, “cactus growing” all around it. He watches the setting sun bleed through the red pine and wonders if he should drive over in his duct-taped Plymouth to visit his ex. Slowly he realizes “that so much of who I am today” — the smoking habit inherited from his dad, the church habit acquired from his ex — “I just picked up second hand.”
“I wanted to tell the stories that don’t get told very often,” Cleaves says on the phone from Cherryfield, Maine. “I got that from Woody Guthrie and Springsteen; that always appealed to me. Who wants to hear about successful people? I wanted to examine the lives of the unsuccessful. You don’t want to romanticize these lives, but you want to give them their due. When I was busking in Portland, Maine, these homeless guys would toss me some coins and share their wine. That’s how my career started; panhandlers were giving me money. I feel a camaraderie with losers who get lucky sometimes, as Tom Petty put it.”
The new album is filled with characters who are more often unlucky than lucky. There’s the barroom brawler of “Puncher’s Chance,” the small-time thief of “Arnold Nash,” the lonely widower of “Sparrow,” the coffin-boxed brother of “New Heartbreak,” the troubled Blanco County cowboy of “Put the Shovel Down,” the Dallas oil-company secretary who turns herself into the “Terlingua Chili Queen,” the minimum-wage workers of “At Christmastime” and “Double Shift Tuesday.”
What distinguishes these portraits is the respect Cleaves pays to his protagonists. He neither condescends to them with pity nor props them up with romanticism. He presents them as they are: victims of a ruthless capitalism and of their own bad decisions. But no matter what hand fate has dealt them, Cleaves gives them the dignity of a life lived with the same desires and energy as the rest of us.
“I don’t mean to be a preacher,” Cleaves sings in “Put the Shovel Down,” “and I know that I’m no saint.” The songwriter has known enough tough times to empathize with his characters. “We nurse our bruises, and we touch our scars,” he sings on the album’s title track. “We look up to the night, seeing chaos in the stars / We stray out into the dark in search of one last chance.” The sound of this music is as spare and stark as the lives of its subjects.
“I was heavily into Springsteen’s early records, just as a fan,” Cleaves confesses, “but I was first getting serious about music when Nebraska came out. It blew my mind. It showed me you don’t need a big name, a big band, a big studio, a big persona, to make arresting, haunting music. All you need is a voice, a guitar and a four-track recorder in your bedroom.”
Nebraska owed an obvious debt to such Texahoma singer-songwriters as Woody Guthrie, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. So in 1991, when Cleaves decided to devote himself to that kind of stripped-down songwriting, it made sense to move to Austin. His own modest success didn’t come as easily or as quickly as he’d hoped, but spending time in a songwriter’s town eventually rubbed off, and he became an accomplished Texas songwriter himself.
“Moving to Austin was a damn good move,” he insists. “I was able to study with people I really admired. It wasn’t just being around these people; it was actually working with them. Gurf Morlix produced four of my albums. I opened for Ray Wylie Hubbard, who taught me how to build a persona and put on a show. Jimmy LaFave was a great help. Don Walser was a mentor.
“Austin had great radio and a press that has often been kind to me — not always, but usually,” he adds. “I was doing sound at the Cactus Café, being the opening act if they needed one. Austin in the ’90s and early 2000s was a sweet spot. It had a history; it was cheap, the traffic wasn’t terrible, and the clubs and radio were supportive. A lot has changed in the last 15 years.”
The first move didn’t work out, and the couple had to return to Portland and restock their bank account before returning to Austin in 1992. It still took another eight years before he gained some traction with his breakthrough album, Broke Down, in 2000. Before that happened, he was paying the bills by participating in drug trials and part-time, minimum-wage jobs. Those gigs not only kept him going but also inspired him to write about the hard-luck characters of his later songs.
Those characters are down-and-out nobodies with calloused hands and pickled livers, full hearts and thin wallets, long work hours and short bursts of joy, men of constant sorrow and ever-changing addresses. These people are seldom remembered and almost never celebrated, except in the songs of Guthrie, Springsteen and Van Zandt — and Cleaves as well. The latter didn’t really click as a songwriter until he turned to these folks and discarded the crutch of confessional songwriting: the delusion that all a song needs is a story that happened to you, the songwriter.
“As time went by,” he explains, “a lot of soul searching led me to believe that a song has to work for the listener and not just me. Woody Guthrie said, ‘Let me be the man who told you what you already know.’ My take on that is it’s not my job to tell you how I feel; my job is to tell you how you feel. My job is to articulate what the listener is going through; that was the power of music when I was growing up. Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Bruce Springsteen did that for me, and I wanted to emulate that as a writer.”
Helping him make that breakthrough was his childhood friend from Maine, Rod Picott. Picott co-wrote four songs on Cleaves’ new album and co-wrote the first song Cleaves is proud of: “Wrecking Ball,” which appeared on Cleaves’ debut album, The Promise, initially released only on cassette. It tells the story of a friend who was expected to take over his father’s business of demolishing Maine’s old mills and houses. He wishes in vain that he could get “away from all that Daddy left to me/ Dead machines and weeds now fill the vacant lots that Daddy built.”
“Rod and I met on the school bus in September 1972,” Cleaves recalls. “He was in second grade, and I was in third. We instantly recognized each other as the only artist types on the bus that day. Amid all the rough-and-tumble boys, we were the nerdy types. We talked about both wanting to be actors, and we both loved the Beatles. Rod had the audacity to put a band together when we were 16 with himself on guitar and vocals, me on keys, plus a sax player, drummer and bassist. Rod and I pushed janitor carts through a factory to earn money to buy a sound system.”
It didn’t amount to much — two school assemblies and two private parties — but it planted the seed that “we could be more than fans; we could be the guys on stage.” Cleaves went off to college at Tufts, joined a cover band and became a lead singer by default when someone quit. For his junior year abroad, he went to Cork in Ireland, where he taught himself enough songs by his heroes to busk on the streets.
“One night, on the street in Cork,” he continues, “I was singing Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Got No Home,’ and this drunk on the street started singing his own verses to the song. A light bulb went off in my head that these songs weren’t set in stone. You could mess with them. I actually wrote a bridge for ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and sang it.”
After college, he formed his first band as the singer-songwriter-guitarist front man. From 1989 to ’91, the Moxie Men became the top proto-alt-country band in Portland, but that took them only so far. Cleaves and then-girlfriend Karen decided they had to move to a real music town.
“When we first got to Austin,” he remembers, “there was so much live music — there were 84 venues listed in the paper. We pinched ourselves at our good luck, but soon reality set in. There was so much competition, not in a cut-throat way but in a Darwinian way. I passed out cassettes and got no response.”
He met Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder Records, at SXSW. They stayed in touch, and Cleaves’ fourth album, 1997’s No Angel Knows, came out on Rounder’s Philo subsidiary. It made a very small splash.
“I had the slow realization that what I was doing wasn’t good enough,” Cleaves allows. “That first Rounder album got some nice reviews, but I still wasn’t drawing an audience or getting airplay. I just buckled down. I thought, ‘This next record has to be a magnitude of quality better. If this second Rounder record doesn’t change things, I have to reevaluate my life.’ We were in debt, and Karen was supporting us.
“Producer Bill Van Dornick told me, ‘You still haven’t figured it out yet, have you?’ You don’t often hear that from people; most people will tell you how great you are. He said, ‘I hear a lot of influences in your songs, but I don’t hear your voice.’ But what was my voice? It was 1999, the year of gangsta rap, not my world; grunge, not my world; Nashville country, too sweet; folk music, too tired. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make the saddest record with the saddest songs; that will be my thing.’”
Working again with Morlix as producer, Cleaves spent more time getting each vocal just right. But it was the new album’s title track, “Broke Down,” again co-written with Picott, that broke through on radio, at least in Austin. It’s the story of a young married couple who break up over “a sink full of dishes and a love grown cold” and live to regret it. There’s no happy ending to this sad-sadder-saddest story, but the rhythmic, catchy chorus was hard to forget: “Broke down, cracked and shattered, left in pieces like it never even mattered / There’s no turnin’ round, it’s broke down.”
“I didn’t want to just stick the knife in,” Cleaves says. “I wanted to turn it. That’s what makes a song memorable, what makes it stick in someone’s memory. Thinking back to my childhood, if a song could make me cry, I’d remember it. And it worked. Instead of playing for six people, I was suddenly playing for 100.”
After making four albums with Morlix and a double-disc live album, Cleaves used multiple producers on his next two projects: himself, Morlix and Charles Arthur on 2009’s Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Lloyd Maines and Mark Mallman on 2013’s Still Fighting the War.
“Scrappy had started working for me as a guitarist shortly before,” Cleaves explains, “and I was thinking about maybe using him as a producer, too. He has access to a lot of great musicians in Austin. He’s more of a rock ’n’ roller than I ever was, but we gelled temperamentally the way I did with Gurf. Both of them respect the writer coming in with his songs; they both propose ways of handling the songs, and they’re fine with my rejecting an approach. There’s no ego.”
For 10 of the dozen songs on Through the Dark, Cleaves collaborated with various co-writers: Picott, Carroll, Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines, Karen Poston, Ron Coy, Duke Levine and Brian Koppelman. The results are surprisingly consistent, unified not only by a focus on the marginalized residents of Texas and Maine but also by the understated intimacy of Cleaves’ modest tenor.
“The best thing about co-writing,” Cleaves argues, “is the added perspective — having an outside pair of eyes. We see each other’s flaws and the solution before the other person can. Often we bring in nearly completed songs that we can’t seem to finish on our own. The other person can see which verses are working and which ones should be thrown out. Then we write new ones. Rod is really good about matching the language to the narrator of a song. He’ll say, ‘I can hear you say that, but I can’t hear the singer of the song saying that.’”
And that respect for the songs’ characters is key to Cleaves’ songwriting. Like the best writers in any medium — songs, novels or screenplays — he knows you have to be close enough to your subjects to know them well but distant enough to have some perspective on their ratio of flaws to virtues. Like any immigrant, he both belongs and doesn’t belong to the place he came from and to the place he came to.
“I feel like a migrant,” he admits. “Like a bird or a fruit picker, I go back and forth with the seasons. As we get older, sitting in those car seats for the hours between Austin and Cherryfield gets harder. But I take advantage of having two homes. I have a bunch of Maine songs and a bunch of Texas songs. It’s good to have such a broad choice of characters, places and cultures to pick from.”
Cover promo photo Karen Cleaves