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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.
Yet scratch the surface, and something more appears. Like the record collection his parents had when he was a kid. "Oh man, it was great," he recalls. "I had all the Beatles records growing up, but also had Hank and Woody and Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. Mahalia Jackson. Pete Seeger. And Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. And my Dad had a guitar that he played once in a while. That's the guitar I use now. An old Gibson he bought new in 1965, a J-15. He hid it in the trunk to hide it from my mother, because I was one year old, and she was furious that he spent money on the guitar. He was in graduate school on a stipend. He should have been buying diapers and formula."
Cleaves switched to playing guitar while in college, he explains, "because I was a keyboard player in the band, and I was always the sideman. And I wanted to have my own band and be the band leader and singer and all." At the same time, he "rediscovered roots music" via Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album. "And through The Clash. They were pointing toward rockabilly and some things, and hearing about Joe Ely. And even The Stray Cats, who I saw on television, and thought, 'Wow, that's cool stuff. I'm sure my father has some of those old records in the attic.' And sure enough, I went up there and just raided the whole record collection gathering dust in the attic. Taped all this Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent, Elvis, Hank, and Woody."
Cleaves took those tapes and his father's guitar with him to Cork, Ireland, for his junior year abroad. "I followed a girl over there," he confesses. "She basically dumped me on the plane. So there I was, committed for nine months, with no girlfriend, no car, no job, no TV, no friends, no family. So I ended up with nothing to do but learn songs and play on the street. That really got me started with the singer-songwriter thing. If that hadn't happened, I wouldn't be here today. And that happened a couple of times down the road too, in other scenarios, when I was about to quit. And that kind of thing just pushed me over the edge into desperation to try it again."
After he graduated from Tufts, Cleaves' life fell apart again in 1988. "So I started traveling around some and playing, sleeping in my car and on couches. And I ended up in Portland [Maine] and started getting gigs in bars. And after a few months, I was making enough to survive on. I couldn't believe it. I was so happy. It was the happiest year of my life." Since then, he's been making a living at music, aside from the occasional stint as a pharmaceutical guinea pig, ingesting new drugs at Austin's Pharmaco drug-testing facility, and renting out his sound system and mixing talents.
He eventually found that Portland wasn't big enough to use as a springboard for his career. Austin was a natural, and it also provided a respite from the Maine winters. "I really wanted to be up close to people like Joe Ely, because my heroes at the time like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty were so unapproachable," Cleaves recalls. "But I knew that someone like Joe Ely was also a hero, but someone I could see, often, and maybe open up for. I was just looking to be in that kind of scene, where there were a lot of people I could look up to and learn from. I didn't have much evidence for that, but my instincts turned out to be right."
So far, Austin has been very good to Cleaves. He rose rather quickly from the open mikes to the top singer-songwriter stages in town, eventually winning him the deal with Rounder. It's also given him some valuable songwriting collaborators for Broke Down in Brooks and still-secret Austin country singing and songwriting treasure Karen Poston, whom Cleaves covers on the album (his other writing partner is old Maine pal Rod Picott, now part of the Nashville roots-music underground). And Cleaves also got to meet Morlix "just a few months before I got the go-ahead from Rounder, saying, 'OK, so find a producer and start making the record.' He was number one on my list. Again, my instincts were really right there. He's the perfect producer for me. It's been a real joy getting to know him and working with him and becoming friends. He's not only a brilliant musician and player, but knows what a song needs. He's a great producer, but also just a really dedicated worker and an easy guy to be around."
In Rounder's publicity bio for Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard is quoted as saying of the younger singer-songwriter, "He's got it. Whatever 'it' is." And yes, there's that voice as reliable as a trusted friend, and gift for simple yet sturdy melodies. But what draws the listener to Cleaves is his gift for delivering real-life stories that ring so true, you can almost see the documentary movie scenes playing behind the song.
"I think that's the total basis of country music," Cleaves concludes. "The Carter Family weren't writing Hallmark-greeting-card, sappy songs. Woody Guthrie wasn't writing about silly stuff. Well, I guess he did write some silly songs. But the real powerful songs, the ones that matter today, are songs like 'Deportee.' It's real life. Life is hard, man. But people were more aware of their mortality back then. Jimmie Rodgers sang a song about TB, the disease he died from. Who sings songs about AIDS or cancer? What attracted me to that old stuff was the realness of it. And that's what I aspire to."