Austin City Limits
Slaid Cleaves likens writing a song to solving a crossword puzzle. When you get stuck, you’d best put it down and come back later when you’re fresh. And with songs, it’s a process that can take years.
Cleaves, A87, who has carved out a sizable presence as a singer-songwriter in the folksy Americana genre, commenced one of his most noteworthy compositions during the depths of the recession in 2009. Originally titled “The Unsinkable Ship,” it was an unwieldy epic about the stock market and the war in Iraq. Several years of stop-and-start work sharpened the focus to soldiers trying to return to civilian life, inspiring a new title, “The War to End All Wars.”
But the final answer to the puzzle didn’t arrive until Cleaves had a conversation with Ron Coy, his frequent writing partner. “Ron was lamenting the passing of a Vietnam vet buddy of his who just never could readjust to civilian society,” Cleaves says. “We were on the phone and he said, ‘All the time Brian was home, it’s like he was still fighting the war.’ And it was like, click.”
Cleaves rewrote the song as “Still Fighting the War.” It’s the title track to his latest album, released in June 2013 by Music Roads Records, a label based in Austin, Texas, where Cleaves makes his home. Observing that all warriors “come home with the same demons,” the song is a vivid evocation of home-front blues:
Barely sleeping and you can’t get through to the VA on the phone
No one’s hiring and no one wants to give you a loan
And everyone else is carrying on just like they’ve always done before
You’ve been home for a couple years now, buddy, but you’re
Still fighting the war.
Cleaves has garnered thanks from military families since the album’s release. Some stories he’s heard have been wrenching. One family told him about how a relative had posted the title song’s lyrics on his Facebook page shortly before committing suicide. “That was very moving, but also really, really sad,” Cleaves says. “I’m glad that song meant something to him, and I hope it gave him comfort. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve failed, because it was not enough comfort, obviously.”
If Cleaves has never been this openly political on record before, he has always subscribed to the motto attributed to Woody Guthrie: that the mission of all songwriters should be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Songs like “Welding Burns” and “Hometown USA” are steeped in the blue-collar fatalism long associated with Bruce Springsteen, but the album also has bursts of playfulness. For “Texas Love Song,” Cleaves set himself the challenge of finding a half-dozen rhymes for the name of the Lone Star State. Between “perplexes,” “Lexus,” “multiplexes,” “solar plexus,” “Tex-Mex is” and “text us,” it’s a virtuoso display of geeky wordplay.
Wiseacre Texas troubadour is a long way from Cleaves’ origins. He grew up in Maine and came to Tufts intending to study engineering, a career plan that lasted as long as his orientation tour. When Cleaves asked who the people throwing Frisbees and lounging around the Quad were, his guide scoffed, “Liberal arts students.” But Cleaves decided that looked more appealing and switched to English and eventually philosophy. A freshman writing class turned out to be particularly formative when a professor told Cleaves he had “inimitable style.”
“I’d never even considered myself a writer before, so the faith he showed in me kind of blew my mind,” Cleaves says.
Cleaves was playing music by then, too, so he started writing songs, a pursuit that turned serious when he spent a year in Ireland playing in pubs and busking on streets. Cleaves returned to Maine and embarked on the obligatory stretch of thankless gigs. Once, when a bar placed him directly beneath a big-screen television showing a Boston Bruins hockey game, he kept his spirits up by pretending the cheers were for him. At his lowest ebb, Cleaves made ends meet by volunteering for clinical trials of pharmaceuticals—anything from painkillers to menopause drugs. One such study paid a hefty $4,000, but involved being quarantined for three weeks.
Fortunately, his drug-testing days are long gone. When he and his wife moved to Austin in the early 1990s, Cleaves became a protégé of the cult-favorite country singer Don Walser, subject of his new album’s affectionate tribute “God’s Own Yodeler,” and built a reputation as the rare Texas songsmith who sings as well as he writes.
In contrast to leathery-voiced headliners like James McMurtry and Guy Clark, Cleaves’ honeyed croon is actually pretty. He has earned accolades from the New York Times as “one of the finest songwriters from Texas” and won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival, a distinction he shares with Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith.
The Southwest may seem like a psychic stretch from his Northeastern roots, but Cleaves finds that Texas and Maine have a lot in common. “Texas friends who have visited there were struck by the similarity of independent spirit. Mainers are very proud of being from there, and the requirements for being regarded as a ‘native’ are very strict—at least two generations in the cemetery. Mainers are self-reliant in the same way Texans are. There’s a quirky side of Maine that’s still close to my heart.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.
David Menconi, the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a frequent contributor.