Slaid Cleaves: If everything lasted forever nothing would be precious

by Scot Casey

I first heard Slaid Cleaves about 15 years ago when I lived in Austin, TX. This great song came on the radio about the iconic dive bar, The Horseshoe Lounge (the Austin version). The singer’s voice was a mixture of easy laughter and broken-in sorrow, painting an instantly nostalgic portrait of that bar and all bars. The song was from the album Broke Down (released in 2000), a stellar collection of poignant gemlike stories of love, loss and longing. Since then, Slaid has released the redemptive Wishbones (2004), the resigned and devastating Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away (2009) and the politically charged Still Fighting the War (2013). Through it all, he has retained unerring ability to capture the poetry of the common soul in tough times.

The idea of place, small towns, and favorite bars are predominate themes in much of Slaid’s music. I asked him how the experience of living in Austin has figured into his songwriting.

“The music community of Austin,” he said, “in the early 1990s, when I moved here, was very inviting, nurturing, accepting. Music, and musicians, were a part of the local culture, a part of everyday life. I was surrounded by future supporters, mentors, and collaborators. And, of course, there is so much to draw from in Texas culture, local characters and lore, exotic stuff for a native New Englander.” (Cleaves grew up in Maine.)

One of the signature qualities of Slaid’s music is his worn, “broken in” comfortable style of singing – in the best way – with lyrics that seem instantly familiar, as if they were written about your friends. There is a kind of a “zen ease” to his songwriting.

“I think I’ve known for a while,” he said, “that my voice can be calming, soothing, when I’m singing at my best. I guess I try to make my voice match some of the themes of my lyrics: resignation, sorrow, yearning.”

No one sings resignation, sorrow and yearning quite like Slaid Cleaves. Whether his music veers more towards country, folk or rock, his voice is always there as a warm and familiar presence, immediately likable and ready with laughter. Having recently turned 50, Slaid seems as if he has come to terms with that resignation.

“Looking back, it seems like the initial 10 or so years of failure in my early career forced me to become more self-critical and to work harder. And that’s how I was able to up my game enough (along with some lucky breaks) to make a career out of a daydream.”

His endearing humility works well for his songs, allowing him to dissolve himself into the people he is singing about. Still Fighting the War (2013) is a collection of finely detailed character portraits of workers, veterans, widowers, broken dreamers and small town believers.

“I think there’s more variety on this album,” Slaid said. “Writing songs for previous albums, I would normally stumble across a theme early on, and then try to shape the songs to fit together on an album. With Still Fighting I just wrote wherever the muse took me, recorded them all (with three different producers), and then tried to make these disparate songs fit together after the fact, by selecting, rejecting, sequencing.”

With each new album, the clarity of his focus increases, the story more universal. That broken hearted fool playing pool at the Horseshoe Lounge becomes more completely realized as a man under the rain finding a measure of redemption on “In the Rain” off the latest album.

I ask Slaid where he sees himself over the next decade. “That’s a mystery to me,” he answered with typical humility and humor. “I admire singers who branch out into other arts, writing novels or doing soundtracks. But that seems like a lot of work. I’m pretty comfortable where I am now. If my audience fades away over the next few years I might have to fire up and learn some new skills. But for now I’ll just keep writing these little songs.”

It was in the news recently that the Horseshoe Lounge was moving, and I wondered at his reaction to this, if there was a sense of nostalgia as an inevitable response. “There’s always an initial shock when a venerable club or favorite hole in the wall closes, like losing a friend. But that’s life,” he said. “If everything lasted forever nothing would be precious.”

Beautiful resignation and easeful wisdom from one of the best songwriters in the country. Here’s to the hope that Slaid Cleaves continues to write his “little songs” for many more years to come.

LIVE SHOW: Catch An Evening with Slaid Cleaves at The Green Frog on Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. For more about him see slaidcleaves.com. 

Published in the February 2015 issue of What’s Up!