Humanity and Humility
Texas troubadour Slaid Cleaves follows in the footsteps of Guy Clark and Merle Haggard
By Bliss Bowen
Back in the early 2000s, around the time his career-making album “Broke Down” was released, I went to see singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. I can’t recall if it was a Sunday or a weeknight; what I do remember is that I was one of maybe half a dozen people in the house.
“Broke Down” was garnering adulatory reviews but, despite the critical respect, Cleaves remained a largely unknown entity outside of Texas. Yet he gave a completely committed performance that night, joking and sharing stories between songs like he didn’t mind playing to an audience that could have comfortably fit inside his living room.
“I do remember that show,” Cleaves says with a genial laugh during a phone conversation about the West Coast tour that’s bringing him to McCabe’s on Saturday. “I was sort of used to those crowds at that point because I didn’t have much success before ‘Broke Down’ came out. So I was happy to get any crowd at all.”
Poor turnouts like that can crush an artist’s spirit, especially when they’re followed by long freeway drives to another gig with no financial guarantee. The upside is that such nights can also provide sweet opportunities to get to know people who’ve made time to experience your music.
“When a very small crowd sees a performer up there, there’s a sense of pity and empathy and sympathy that sort of bonds the audience to the artist,” Cleaves says with a chuckle. “It can be a lasting bond.”
Over the past 15 years, he has bonded with quite a few loyal fans — not enough to make him a household name, but enough to afford him a steady career. He plays to bigger audiences now, and his merch table is stacked with almost a dozen albums, including the just-released “Bonus Tracks, Vol. 1,” a collection of demos and instrumentals he describes as “a little something for diehard fans.” He just emerged from a week and a half in the studio with guitarist/producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb (who’ll accompany him Saturday), recording an album he hopes to finish in the fall.
He’s earned his reputation as an Americana artist of conscience and craft, a songwriter whose narratives are peopled by soldiers, factory workers, ranch hands and hounded gamblers whose dilemmas feel familiar to Cleaves’ listeners. That humanity makes his songs resonate. In that respect he’s traveling a path laid out by recently departed songwriting icons such as Guy Clark and Merle Haggard.
“I do feel like I’m a bit of a torchbearer,” he acknowledges. “I’m not breaking any new ground. I’m picking up where those guys left off, and continuing in their tradition, in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and John Prine and Guy Clark. That’s the craft that I fell into, that’s the craft that I’ve been working on, and I don’t have any other skills. That’s just the direction I ended up going. Thankfully there’s a small subset of music lovers interested in this type of lyric-based, folk-based music.”
Cleaves also resembles his forebears in that he believes there’s more hope to be found in honesty than in falsely imposed cheer.
“I remember early on being cognizant that, as bleak a picture as I paint in my songs, there should always be a hopeful note to them, or at least the song should be presented in a way that’s uplifting,” he explains. “I’m uplifted by sad songs, for some reason — maybe because it makes you know you’re not alone in the world when you’re suffering. I think there’s a little silver lining in all my music, if you experience it in the intended way.”
A native New Englander, Cleaves moved to Austin 25 years ago so he could afford to make that music. He’s still associated with Austin, though he’s now settled in Wimberley, a small town about 40 miles out in the countryside. Like other music meccas, including Los Angeles, the Texas capital and its storied music community have undergone profound changes as tech companies like Hewlett-Packard, eBay and Samsung have transformed the city into a traffic-jammed “Silicon Hills.”
“It’s still a good place to find all kinds of different music and food and to make your own path,” Cleaves observes, “but I worry sometimes that it’s just getting too expensive. One of the reasons I moved to Austin was because it was so cheap. Twenty-five years ago, Austin rent was about two-thirds what my rent in Portland, Maine, was — and that’s not even an expensive city. Austin having so much cool art and cool music and being so cheap was a no-brainer 25 years ago. It’s not cheap anymore. It’s still pretty danged vibrant now, but I worry about the future of the music scene, that young people are not gonna be able to afford to be a part of it.”
Slaid Cleaves plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 9, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit slaidcleaves.com.