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Yet he really is this rather potent mixture of the best elements of the folk tradition and the true spirit behind the finest traditional country song-craft. Which means that when you ask him to define just where he believes his music exists on the stylistic spectrum, Cleaves is hesitant to answer. "Oh, gee," he says with a certain air of resignation, followed by a pause. Then, like a good folk singer, he tells a story to make his point. "My dad got me the Hank Williams boxed set for my birthday two years ago, and there's all kinds of old pictures there. And there's ads. And they called Hank's single the latest folk single, folk and hillbilly. You would never call Hank Williams a folk artist now. But it's true, he was. It's ridiculous to call anything like I do country now, just because of the way Nashville has sort of taken that trademark and used it for their own music, which has nothing to do with what I do. So country is misleading."
Then he turns the coin over. "And folk. You know, I'm not like an archival revivalist, or retro folk. But I'm not really one of those new folk guys either, one of those new folk singer-songwriters. So I don't know what I am," he admits. "Americana kinda works for me. The folk fringe of Americana. The songwriter of Americana as opposed to the cow-punk version. That's it -- Americana songwriter."
How about just dropping the final "a" and calling him an American singer and songwriter? After all, Cleaves falls into that same nether region occupied by Lucinda Williams, making the sort of neo-traditional American music that arises from being weaned on folk, rock and roll, country, and blues and realizing they are all different roots of the same tree. So it's altogether fitting that his new album, Broke Down, and his debut, No Angel Knows, were both produced by Gurf Morlix, who played guitar with Williams for 12 years and co-produced her Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World albums. Like Williams, Cleaves tells stories that have the unmistakable ring of real life echoing within them.
You can hear it in a song like "Broke Down," in which a woman bolts a "love grown cold," yet neither she nor the husband she left behind can escape each other's ghosts. Or even in the North Woods logging tale of "Breakfast in Hell," in which he creates a log-jam-busting folk hero named Sandy Grey and a legend around him as tall as those of Casey Jones or Paul Bunyan. Cleaves also set a Woody Guthrie lyric to his own melody with "This Morning I Am Born Again," and did it well before Billy Bragg and Wilco made the Guthrie archive a popular vein for singer-songwriters to mine for golden words. The music Morlix helps Cleaves fashion behind those songs rests right on the fulcrum between sparse and rich, begging the conundrum of matching those two descriptions and then plugging into it for a subtle potency. It's a sound in which even the electric guitar licks sound hard-carved, like it's all some sort of folk art fashioned with chainsaws.
Even though Cleaves calls Austin home, he is decidedly not a Texas singer-songwriter. Yet Broke Down is solidifying his reputation as one of the finest new artists emerging from Austin, a place where you can barely spit off your front porch without hitting some eager songsmith ready to play you his or her wares. And he may have been raised in Maine and woodshedded his style and material up east, yet Cleaves has none of the precious introspection and prissy perfectionism of his many Rounder Records labelmates from the New England new folk school.
As fellow Austin singer-songwriter Steve Brooks points out in the liner notes to Broke Down, Cleaves is something of an old-style traveling troubadour, sometimes barely getting from one town to the next in such rattletraps as his 1974 Dodge Dart, eking out a career and a living playing for people wherever he can. There's something broad and highly all-American to the music Cleaves makes, with a consciousness that is never too far from that of the people who live from paycheck to paycheck, hoping the car won't break down.
Such authenticity might seem surprising from Cleaves when one looks at the surface of his background. He grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Berwick, Maine, and was given the requisite piano lessons as a kid that led to playing in a garage band during his teens, covering Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and The J. Geils Band. He later attended Tufts University in Boston, where he earned a degree in philosophy. Hardly the stuff that a populist song poet is usually made of.