DIARY - 30 JANUARY 2013 - SLAID CLEAVES CD REVIEW
SLAID CLEAVES - HORSING AROUND WITH WISHBONES
nothing but a Ford and a barn full of hay/ if it weren't for horses and
divorces/ I'd have a let more money and less gray hair/ I might be even
be a millionaire, I'd be a lot better off today." - Horses - Slaid
Peters penned the famed line "she got a divorce and a chestnut horse"
in Pam Tillis hit Let That Pony Run she tilled the topsoil of marital
Slaid Cleaves blasted the divorce stable door wide open with Horses
- one of many gems on his seventh album Wishbones (Philo-Shock.)
Cleaves fleshes out divorce dramas by exploiting the tale of an old farmer
forced into moonshining to pay for four divorces.
The aggrieved agrarian tells his story for a share of song royalties to
"I got a 51 Ford I'd like to fix up/ I got two sick ponies and one
sick pup/ and my third wife's coming today to take my TV set."
Oh, the narrator in the tale is named Willie - but not, of course, Shotgun
Cleaves was born in Washington, DC, and raised in South Berwick and Round
Pound in Maine.
He majored in English and philosophy at Tufts University, New England,
and released five cassette albums before he scored airplay on Nu Country
FM with 1997 debut disc No Angel Knows and 2000 album Broke
Cleaves busked in the street and formed an alt-country band in Portland,
Maine, but moved with his wife Karen to Austin in 1991 chasing a dream.
That dream was music - not his alter ego as guinea pig drug tester at
Pharmaco to pay bills, even after winning best new folk talent at Kerrville
Although the pharmaceutical testing was the envy of some peers it enabled
him to hone his craft as a writer.
"It was time to go to some big music town and get discovered,"
"And eight years later, I was discovered."
It didn't come easy.
"I was in the black when I left Maine and went immediately into the
red in Austin," Slaid recalled.
"I came as an absolute nobody and started at the absolute bottom
rungs, playing on the sidewalk on Sixth Street and playing open mikes,
begged for opening gigs, entered contests."
after day after, trying to understand/ why the world tried to grind you
down/ make a ghost out of a man/ your day of grace is due/ and you have
pawned everything you owned." - Wishbones - Slaid Cleaves-Ray
Wylie Hubbard - Photo by Carol Taylor
of writing partners is fruitful.
He penned the title track with the legendary Oklahoma born long time Texan
troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard.
The duo explores its poverty decimated desolation row - "this is
real life brother, this ain't no reality show."
Eliza Gilkyson is back-up vocalist on the song that was featured on ESPN2
TV show Cold Pizza.
"That one's not a story," former pizza and ice cream truck delivery
driver Cleaves recalled.
"It's more impressionistic, a little less direct than most of my
writing. I usually have one song like that on each record. It's a little
more pop, and it's a little more mysterious."
Sinner's Prayer, penned with Rod Picott, is also a song of desperation
Cleaves and Picott played in a high school garage band named The Magic
Rats after a character in Bruce Springsteen's song Jungleland.
The Cleaves-Picott team also co-wrote four songs - Not Going Down,
Jennie's All Right, Wrecking Ball and The River Runs - on No
Angel Knows and the title track of 1990 album Broke Down.
But in Drinkin' Days - penned with Karen Poston - regret is replaced
by jubilation as the reformed drunk trades a Huntsville jail cell for
The singer name checks iconic Austin locales The Broken Spoke, Gaslight
and Horseshoe Lounge where he cut a live album.
engine block is covered in blood/ and my veins are pumping gasoline/ from
Waxahachie to Rabbit Hash, I've felt that steel belt song/ and every exit
looks the same/ I guess I've been on the road too long." - Road
Too Long - Slaid Cleaves.
title track segues into truckie anthem Road Too Long, replete
with graphic imagery.
Cleaves' forte, like that of Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, a young
Steve Earle and many Texan troubadours, is narratives.
Here he expands on horse tales in Quick As Dreams - story of
two teenagers who flee to become jockeys.
Tommy Luther - narrator in a tale inspired by Laura Hillenbrand's
Seabiscuit - reaches 84 while his best mate dies in a fall 60 years
"When I see a story like that, it's a neat challenge to me to
put it into song format," Cleaves revealed at the time.
I don't tend towards the confessional. I just don't find that very interesting.
I'm interested in stories, characters, adventures. It was inspiring. One
chapter in the book was about how tough it was to be a jockey."
More humane characters than the boxer in Picott tune Tiger Tom Dixon's
POWER OF ELECTRICITY
day same the lawyers with cash in hand/ they swore that our village would
light up the land, surrounding the valley was a painted red line/ drawn
by company men, like marking a crime." - Below - Slaid Cleaves-Nicole
are punctuated by social conscience peak Below penned with Nicole St Pierre.
It's a familiar story - corporate fixers target a town for flooding to
produce liquid gold as electricity.
Their divide and conquer strategy is to offer cash to residents for their
heritage - farms and homes - so they can bury history under water.
Plenty of examples in Australia but Cleaves laces his story with delicious
And it's not just the story - also the descriptive delivery.
"Some folks took the money, starting grinding gears/ while the rest
of us held out for twenty odd years."
Sure, it's a sibling of John Gorka's Houses In The Fields and Where
The Bottles Break but a good one.
The sequencing is a little spooky with the final three songs daubed with
Hearts Break uses the Twin Towers metaphor, a double crossed Mexican
dope grower is killed in Borderline and New Year's Day is
a pathos-primed eulogy to a deceased mate.
Cleaves accessible vocals are complimented by Gurf Morlix's crisp production
and pedal steel with Eleanor Whitmore and Darcy Deaville on fiddle, Billy
Bright on mandolin, Jeff Plankenhorn on dobro, drummer Rick Richards,
organist Ian McLagen, bassist Ivan Brown, cellist Brian Standefer and
other Austin pickers.
he crossed himself at the borderline/ he wired the dollars to Elena back
at home/ as he roomed with 10 desperate men/ when the builders had enough,
the INS cuffed him/ and it's back to the border again/ a tearful reunion
with family and friends/ but soon the reality sets in/ there's no work
to be found in the dry desert ground." - Borderline - Slaid Cleaves.
fondly recalled the album incubation.
"I took three months off last winter to do stuff around the house,"
"I have a friend who has a cabin in Liberty Hill. I went to this
little guesthouse behind the cabin to see if I could be a writer again
and, lo and behold, it came back. It was scary being a writer again.
Once I set aside time to be writer again things came together. I need
to be totally excluded and apart from everything. That's the only
way I've been able to write for the last two years. I can't do it
at the house. There are too many distractions. I found a cabin my
friend loaned me. Each record I have to use a different trick to get
myself to write. I used to write at a state park, and I used to write
at home, and I used to write in the cabin. I don't know what I'll
do next, maybe get out of town and go somewhere I've never been before."
a prolific writer - solo - and with older peers dating back to Kent Finlay
and Mark Farrington.
"Lately my MO has been to go off by myself and write," Cleaves
"If a song becomes problematic, if it's not good or exciting enough,
I'll take it to a trusted friend who can provide an idea or a word or
the glue. Most of the people I write with have been friends for a long
time. The song itself usually points to someone."
The solitude and sessions with multi-instrumentalist Morlix, who also
produced No Angel Knows, was rewarding.
"I'm proud of Wishbones, Cleaves confessed.
"I love the way it sounds and I love the songs. I know it's not a
huge step. It hasn't brought me a new audience the way that Broke Down
did, but I have a good audience now, and it's selling much faster than
the last one did. "But the main thing was that with Broke Down,
I felt I finally made the record I wanted to make for 10 years. It was
the best record I could possibly do. On one hand, I wanted to tell the
world about it - that's why I toured so hard - but I also had no idea
what I wanted to do next. So I was really scared. I tried to cover that
up by going out on the road, by not thinking about a new record, not thinking
about new songs."
Cleaves has since released Sorrow & Smoke - Live At The Horseshoe
Lounge in 2011.
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