The Right Profile
Slaid Cleaves is five years behind. Actually, he's one time zone ahead, calling from the Charleston, West Virginia, studios of National Public Radio's Mountain Stage, where he's participating in a Woody Guthrie tribute edition of the Appalachian Austin City Limits. He's discussing the boyish cast of his 35-year-old features, and some tight spots he's landed in thanks to such a youthful countenance. "My first review in Music City Texas, I was 27," he remembers, "and [MCT editor/publisher John] Conquest said, 'He's 27, but he looks 17,' and made some comment that it was ridiculous for me to be singing songs about drinking whiskey when I looked like I couldn't even buy one."
Cleaves isn't getting carded so much anymore -- the goatee helps -- but he's still somewhat at odds with his baby-faced appearance, mostly because of the uncanny way his songs evoke the work of songwriting sheiks from both inside Texas (Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Guy Clark) and out (Hank Williams, Guthrie), all of whom are at the least a solid generation his senior. This is where the age thing gets tricky.
"People might see me play and think, 'Wow, he's really great for a 30-year-old,'" explains Cleaves. "Then they'll find out I'm 35 and go, 'Oh, well, you better be that good.'"
Slaid Cleaves is that good. In fact, a lot of people are going to be playing catch-up with him now thanks to his brand-new Rounder/Philo release Broke Down, which raises the bar for Austin singer-songwriters of any age. Expertly lathed by local sonic craftsman Gurf Morlix, who added similar Southern swaths to much of Lucinda Williams' early work as well as Cleaves' first Rounder effort No Angel Knows, Broke Down mixes originals ("Cold and Lonely," "Bring It On," "Key Chain") with contributions from contemporaries Karen Poston ("Lydia") and Steve Brooks ("One Good Year"), and concludes with a stirring version of bluegrass paisan Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Movin' In."
The track Slaid cleaves to most, however, is his arrangement of the Woody Guthrie poem "This Morning I Am Born Again." For one thing, it's why he's routed the Broke Down release tour through Charleston. (Also appearing on the Mountain Stage bill: Austinites Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson, and Guthrie's son Arlo, naturally.) Cleaves' musical accompaniment to "Born Again" is actually several years old, but the Portland, Maine, native, who relocated to Central Texas in '92, says it wasn't until Guthrie's daughter Nora assumed control of her Steinbeckian troubadour father's estate and supervised 1998's heavily applauded Billy Bragg/Wilco/ Guthrie collaboration, Mermaid Avenue, that he considered recording it.
"Her attitude was a 180-degree switch," he says. "She wanted to get as much of his stuff out there in the public as possible, and she thought it was a great idea to have current writers finish off these fragments that Woody left behind."
"Born Again" proved a popular choice, but once again Cleaves was nearly confounded.
"There was some confusion, because a couple of other artists had recorded it," he explains. "I didn't think I'd be able to get permission to do it, but it turned out that the other artists didn't release it, so it was still up for grabs. It's a real thrill to have it say, 'This Morning I Am Born Again by Slaid Cleaves and Woody Guthrie.'"
Cleaves recalls two other encounters with Guthrie's music, once when his kindergarten-teacher mom played him Guthrie and Pete Seeger's children's album as a young tyke, and again at 20 when his love for Bruce Springsteen drove him to raid his parents' attic record collection in search of the Boss' musical idols.
"I literally went up to the attic and dug all those records out," he says. "Taped 'em all."
By embracing Guthrie and his ilk, Cleaves has effectively skipped a generation in his music, ironic for someone who says he was wearing out Beatles records at age four and spent part of his high school years busting out "Badlands" and "Freeze Frame" as part of a cover band specializing in early-Eighties icons Springsteen, Tom Petty, and the J. Geils Band. Even upon moving to Texas, his bouquets from the local folk community -- winning the Kerrville Folk Festival's "Best New Folk" prize in 1992 -- caught him somewhat off guard.
"I've never considered myself a folkie," he insists. "When I showed up at Kerrville, it was just that I had moved to Texas and my band had stayed behind in Maine."
Proclaiming for years that the Clash was the only band that mattered, Cleaves got plenty of practice in the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock during his first few years in Austin, gradually working his way up from busking on Sixth Street and countless open mike nights to playing at Chicago House "where all of five people would show up." Now, Broke Down is in regular rotation on KGSR, critics from the Chronicle to MCT and beyond are tripping over their superlatives, and Cleaves would have sold out the Cactus at its release soirée except it was a free show. (Very punk.) Seeing a standing-room-only crowd come to see him at UT's shrine to all things acoustic was especially sweet.
"I called Griff [Luneburg, Cactus Cafe booker/manager] a few months before I even moved here, and it took me two or three years to get a gig at the Cactus," he reflects.
Cleaves is certainly making the most of his "Career Opportunities" now, and says he continues to hold onto some basic tenets from his punk years, but as a mature 35-year-old, he's more selective about what he's kept and what he's let go.
"There's still some of that in me, the sort of 'anyone can do this' ethic," he admits. "I've never really learned how to play guitar. I just barely strum the guitar, and I never learned any fancy chords or anything.
"The anger part of it isn't there, and the aggression and alienation," he continues. "I feel like that's the kind of thing you usually grow out of. I was there for a while, sure. I was angry, spray-painted my car, wore leather pants and wild clothes -- I did that. I guess what appealed to me about the folkier side of things is that you could be a little bit more independent. You didn't have to have all the clothes in the right style, and all the instruments and the amplifiers and the PAs. You could just be on the street with an acoustic guitar, and that's all you need.
"Maybe," he concludes with a laugh, "I was just too lazy to work hard and buy up all those fancy things."