Out of the past

Slaid Cleaves finally molds his influences into the shape of his own voice

Slaid Cleaves has a soft voice: not mumbled or insecure, just diminished. More than five years of living in Texas has diluted his childhood's Maine inflections, but apparently has not lent him the trumpet-like blare that comes so easy to denizens of the Lone Star State.

Cleaves--now an Austin-based singer-songwriter who became known to most in Dallas after an exceptional opening gig for Jimmie Dale Gilmore last autumn--claims not to think much about the effects of region and geography on a songwriter's function(ing). "I'm kinda slow at analysis," he says with a gentle laugh. If, however, you take a while and draw it out of him, his life as an artist is full of important changes that have come with regional shifts. Although he'd played "garage keyboards" in high school with bands that performed covers in bars, he didn't take himself seriously as a singer-songwriter until he went to Ireland's University College in Cork to study.

"That's where I started singing, and where I learned to play the guitar, and that's where I began to want to be a songwriter type," Cleaves says, speculating--if you lean on him--that the shock of dislocation and the pervasive otherness of Ireland must have shaken that ambition--planted earlier by Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska--loose. It was Nebraska that led him up into his attic to rummage about his folks' old records, where he discovered Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and the rest of his artistic history. Cleaves taped a bunch of the songs he found and took the tapes with him to Ireland, where he began to learn how to play them. "I used to do the whole [Nebraska] album when I'd play in the streets," he says, adding that he still performs the album's "Johnny 99" and "Open All Night."

"My favorite, though," he says, "is probably 'Reason to Believe.'" For Cleaves, like many fans, the Boss is a lens through which everything else can be examined. "We could sit here and talk about the whole Springsteen thing forever."

Returning to America, Cleaves started to busk around his old stomping grounds. His popularity grew, and he released a couple of albums and played with a folk-rock group called the Moxie Men out of Portland, Maine, from 1989 to 1991. In '91, however, things began to get a little stale for Cleaves. "I felt like I was comfortable--making money--but that was about it," he explains. Part of it was the folk traditions of the far Northeast, which tend toward hard, austere songs full of salt spray, Calvinism, and ice as opposed to the sweltering humidity, hollering Southern Baptist faith, and fertility of the South.

"Northeastern songwriters are always so introspective," Cleaves muses. "Maybe it's the long winter and the depression it can bring, but I didn't really feel a part of it. I'd always been a storyteller kind of a songwriter, and that's what drew me to Texas. The sound of the music--guys like Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely--just appealed to me. I hadn't heard that much of it, but it was enough to make me want to immerse myself in it, because I felt like I had that rootsy point of view, like Robert Earl Keen."

Starting over in Austin wasn't too tough for somebody used to playing out in the street. "We thought we were the smartest people in the world," Cleaves says of himself and his friends. "We'd spend the summers up in Portland and the winters in Austin." In 1992 he won the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk award and not long thereafter released the full-length Life's Other Side; two years later he put out For the Brave and the Free. As their titles might suggest, these two efforts were promising but were still working through Cleaves' past influences; a personal stamp at times seemed tenuous.

With No Angel Knows--his major-label debut out last February on Rounder--he's moving up to the next level. No Angel is the first album that sounds more like Cleaves and less like a tour through his influences; spare in some spots, thick in others, it's his best work yet. The cuts on No Angel range from the almost-straight bluegrass of the title track to understated vignettes about characters and situations. "Jenny's Alright" is a tale of a struggling young woman who has fallen into a woozy routine of living for the nightlife, baby, but is almost an ode to her perseverance and utterly devoid of irony. Cleaves maps Jenny's mistakes and triumphs clearly but without condescension.

The album-opening "Not Going Down" is perhaps the best evidence of Cleaves' narrative persona: an embattled everyman, resigned but resolute. That his stubborn refusal to give in is based on absolutely no other options does not detract from his courage. Here Cleaves sets himself up in opposition to an earlier artist who very much resembles him. Steve Forbert had the same average look--the high school buddy whose name you can't recall, Chuck Farley from Animal House--and wrote similar songs about the little things in life. However, while Forbert--flush with the promises of the '80s--acknowledges and even embraces the lure of the "dirty little town" of Laurel ("Going Down to Laurel"), Cleaves cannot.

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