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Out of the past

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.

 

"I never thought of it that way," Cleaves says dubiously. "Except for [Forbert's] The Mission of the Crossroad Palms [1995], I don't really care that much for him. That song ["Not Going Down"] comes from me living up North and just watching things crumble or being torn down. I think this album has two themes: resignation and defiance. The characters are all wishing for freedom, but there's a freedom in acceptance, too. I wrote that song during a year that wasn't very successful for me, when I was just sort of floating in between things." Another song--"29"--is a bare (only Cleaves' voice and producer Gurf Morlix on Dobro) examination of a bright light burning out too early; at first blush, it might be about Hank Williams. "That song started out as a tribute to a friend of mine who died on the road, but I put the Hank references in so it could apply to anyone."

That widening of scope helped. "My first couple of records [back East] were full of local references and very popular in the south of Maine, but the local-hero character in a song gives a little less for other people to latch on to; on the new album, I really tried to be more universal." Texas provided a different lens through which to view his New England childhood, growing up in a house that has been in the family for three generations and overlooks both the sea and the surrounding highlands. "The water is named Brown's Cove, for Captain John Brown, who bought the land from the Indians in the early 1600s," Cleaves reports. "Our house was built in 1692 and was burned by Indians. It wasn't until I came to Texas, where everything's relatively new, that it sunk in just how old that is." Surface differences aside, Texas and Maine produce similar citizens. "Maine has a reputation for pride and ruggedness, and I brought a little of that attitude with me," he recalls. "At first, Texans and all their talk was--well, I wouldn't say annoying, but, ah, people here really have no idea what Maine's like, they think it's some big industrial state when actually Portland--the biggest town in Maine--only has a population of like 60,000."

Cleaves soon discovered that those mindsets and the music he admired were linked. "It took me a while to see it, but after immersing myself in the music, I could see how the music spoke to the attitude and how the attitude reinforced the music." At the same time he was soaking in his new home state, however, he was also delivering aspects of the East Coast to Texans. The dominance of automobile imagery in his songs comes from there. "Back East, we had boardwalks and beaches and all that--just like Bruce--and Maine is really pretty sparsely settled, so cars are essential to growing up. That imagery just naturally fell into my work."

"Skunk Juice" and "Last of the V-8s" are No Angel's tip of the hat to the Magic Rat, their Atlantic Coast gearhead vibe leavened with good ol' Southern shade-tree attitude. "Skunk Juice" is a funny, clever tale of combing junkyards for parts that is full of funky character; "Last of the V-8s" is a not-so-successful song that doesn't quite escape cliche (to get away with a song so titled, you'd have to outdo the awed, reverential tones in which a character in the movie Mad Max says those very words upon seeing Max's blown-out pursuit car. There are entire worlds in that line, and Cleaves just doesn't come close).

Cleaves still drives his 1974 Plymouth Duster--"Skunk Juice" was born during countless searches for its hard-to-find MoPar parts--and lists the 318 V-8 as his favorite powerplant, although he did go through an infatuation with the burlier 386. "I've gotten some criticism for that [imagery]," Cleaves admits. "But you look at a guy like Fred Eaglesmith--his last record was something like eight songs about cars and two about trains, and that was a great album--so I'm not going to step back from it."

The title track has a hard bluegrass feel, full of mandolin and fiddle; Cleaves even bends his voice toward a high, lonesome edge. "I got the idea for that from a Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire [about an angel who returns to earth]...what no angel knows, of course, are the implications of mortality, of being flesh. That song started off as a ballad, but when we started using the mandolin, it just sort of sped up."

 

Cleaves tries to put as many layers in his songs as possible. "When I was in college, I took a lot of writing classes, and a lot of literature and modern poetry classes--T.S. Eliot and all that," he explains. "In those classes, you learned to pick out the different levels of meaning that a poem or a story works at; now, I try and put those levels into what I write. I once read that Hank Williams said that a song should only have one meaning, but I go against that. It was pretty much true for his songs, but I find a lot of pleasure in those different levels. They help you get something different out of every listen."

Cleaves is currently running himself ragged supporting No Angel Knows, and it's pretty clear that his old system will have to change soon to accommodate a stab at the big time. "Right now I'm still handling most of this stuff--booking clubs, arrangements, managerial stuff--myself, but it's getting really hard to write songs as this thing takes off. I'm looking for management, national booking, and maybe even a publishing deal that could make me money while I'm out on the road."

Slaid Cleaves will be playing evenings at the Gingerman the first three Sundays in May (4, 11, and 18), and at Poor David's May 24.


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