Slaid Cleaves – Pastures of plenty of singer-songwriters
Slaid Cleaves calls his new Philo album Broke Down after its opening track, but also in tribute to his 1977 Dodge Van that carried him around the country in recent years. In a way, the van serves as a metaphor for Cleaves’ career.
The Maine native moved to Austin eight years ago and has been plugging away ever since, trying to break into the upper tier of singer-songwriters in a city that’s home to Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo and Robert Earl Keen. It’s an admittedly tough task, but Cleaves thinks he’s better for trying.
“It’s been an ass-kicking for sure, but it’s been good in a way — it spurred me on to work harder,” he says. “It’s been tough to move beyond the status of being the newcomer and get played on the radio and written about in the Chronicle. I get really frustrated about it sometimes, but then I realized everyone who is at that upper level is great and works really hard. So there’s nothing to be ashamed about being at a lower level.”
Broke Down is Cleaves’ second album with producer Gurf Morlix, who also handled his 1997 Philo debut, No Angel Knows. “The first time, we had three weeks to record, so there was more pressure but we learned what to expect from each other,” Cleaves says. “This time, we did it in his home studio, and it was very low pressure — we could do stuff over until we got it right.”
A standout song on Broke Down is “Breakfast In Hell”, a traditional storytelling ballad about the legendary Canadian lumberjack Sandy Gray. “It was fun to try to write in that mode,” Cleaves says. “The story was just handed to me; it’s like a perfect folk song. I was up at Gurf’s house in Canada and we took a boat ride on the Georgian Bay to this place called Sandy Gray Falls. He had heard the story of this local legend and researched it in the local library and found a little article about what had happened in 1867. There was a huge log jam on the Musquash River on a Sunday. They usually didn’t log on Sundays, but Sandy Gray said, ‘Boys, we’re going to break this jam or it will be breakfast in hell,’ He died trying, but they broke the jam.”
Cleaves also found a place on the album for “This Morning I Am Born Again”, a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics which he loosely set to an old Mahalia Jackson gospel song. “In 1992, I was invited to do the annual Woody Guthrie tribute show in Austin. I wanted to impress everyone with an obscure Woody song, so I took some lyrics from his book Pastures Of Plenty,” he explains. “I had shelved the idea of ever recording it, because Woody’s old manager still controlled his catalog and was very strict about its use. But when Woody’s daughter Nora took over, her attitude was a complete 180 shift — she wanted to get his music out there, including having his unfinished songs completed by modern musicians. So when I heard about the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue album, I got in touch with Nora with the help of [fellow Austin songwriter] Jimmy LaFave, and she gave me permission to record it.”
While he was gathering songs for Broke Down, Cleaves noticed that they all were tending toward darker themes. “I considered trying to write a happy song to balance them out, but decided to go full bore with the death and destruction,” he concludes. “That’s the music I love, and that’s what I write because it moves me.”