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Slaid Cleaves: 'Still Fighting' With Smart Lyrics And Stories

Jun 13, 2013
Originally published on June 13, 2013 3:34 pm

Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and residing in Austin, Texas, Slaid Cleaves is no one's idea of a music-industry insider. He writes and sings songs primarily about working-class people and romantics both hopeful and hopeless. That said, it's also not difficult to hear another element of the fortysomething Cleaves' past: He was an English and philosophy major at Tufts, and his lyrics are underpinned by both a fine sense of meter and moral perspicacity. You can hear the former — the clever rhymes and forward narrative momentum — in a jaunty song such as "Texas Love Song."

The other side of Cleaves' music is his interest in delineating what it's like to live a hardscrabble existence without too much hope of rising above one's station in life. This tends to lead Cleaves back to his Maine childhood, where the economy and the climate are frequently difficult, and which can summon up vivid images for him. One of the best of these is "Welding Burns," in which the narrator recalls the look of his father's hands and the trapped feeling the older man felt in the work he was bound to do.

My father was a welder, and that song certainly rings true to me. Something I can also identify with is Cleaves' admiration for Don Walser, a legendary cult figure in Texas country music — a genial, portly singer who was known for his bold yodeling. Walser didn't make his modest recording breakthrough until he was in his 50s. Cleaves' song "God's Own Yodeler" doesn't merely describe Walser; the melody also embodies the spirit of Walser's music.

Slaid Cleaves possesses a beautifully dusty, yearning voice that rarely strains for poignancy or effusive sentiment. He has the distinctive gift of being able to describe lost loves in songs here such as "Gone" and "Without Her" without self-pity. In "I Bet She Does," he pulls off a trick I'm not sure I've heard before: making clear his bitterness about a woman who rejected him — and who now regrets breaking his heart — without turning it into a surly, I-told-you-so song.

Cleaves has expressed his admiration for songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, and he tours a lot, but as he sings in a song about auto workers called "Rust Belt Fields," "No one remembers your name just for working hard." You might, however, remember the name Slaid Cleaves for music as terse and clear and heartfelt as it is throughout Still Fighting the War.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves has said that as he wrote songs for his new album, a theme of perseverance through hard times revealed itself. One of his earlier albums was called "Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away."

Rock critic Ken Tucker says the new album called "Still Fighting the War" is no downer, and Cleaves manages to find both complex sentiments and witty phrases in his new songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL FIGHTING THE WAR")

SLAID CLEAVES: (Singing) Hard times coming home now, can't get your feet on the ground. Got some issues, and no one wants you around. 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 of years now buddy, but you're still fighting the war.

KEN TUCKER: Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and residing in Austin, Texas, Slaid Cleaves is no one's idea of a music-industry insider. He writes and sings songs primarily about working-class people and romantics both hopeful and hopeless. That said, it's also not difficult to hear another element of the 40-something Cleaves' past: He was an English and philosophy major at Tufts, and his lyrics are underpinned by both a fine sense of meter and moral perspicacity. You can hear the former - the clever rhymes and forward narrative momentum - in a jaunty song such as "Texas Love Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS LOVE SONG")

CLEAVES: (Singing) For you, I'd give up all my time. Searching for the perfect rhyme, and this is one that certainly perplexes. For you, I would spend all my days thinking up all the crazy ways. I love you even more than I love Texas. You got Bellaire class and Dallas style, Austin soul and a Luckenbach smile. For you I'd trade my truck in for a Lexus. You smell as sweet as the piney woods. I'd marry you if I thought I could. I love you even more than I love Texas.

(Singing) You're the barb on my wire...

TUCKER: The other side of Cleaves' music is his interest in delineating what it's like to live a hardscrabble existence without too much hope of rising above one's station in life. This tends to lead Cleaves back to his Maine childhood, where the economy and the climate are frequently difficult, and which can summon up vivid images for him. One of the best of these is "Welding Burns," in which the narrator recalls the look of his father's hands and the trapped feeling the older man felt in the work he was bound to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELDING BURNS")

CLEAVES: (Singing) My father was a welder down at the Navy yard. Up on the North Atlantic where the winters come down hard. A union job, some overtime. Nobody would complain. He went to work with a humble pride through the snow and rain.

(Singing) Some things you're born to. Some things you gotta learn. My father built his world on bone, muscle and blood, welding burns.

TUCKER: Yeah, my father was a welder, and that song certainly rings true to me. Something I can also identify with is Cleaves' admiration for Don Walser, a legendary cult figure in Texas country music - a genial, portly singer who was known for his bold yodeling. Walser didn't make his modest recording breakthrough until he was in his 50s. Cleaves' song "God's Own Yodeler" doesn't merely describe Walser; the melody also embodies the spirit of Walser's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GOD'S OWN YODELER")

CLEAVES: (Singing) Up at Henry's Bar & Grill on the north side of town, I saw a man reach up to heaven and pull a song on down. To a smoke filled room of misfits, young and old and brave and small and with the laughing eyes of the Buddha, he shared it with us all.

(Singing) And every soul in that roadhouse felt the power of his song. Through life's joys and sorrows, he brought us together as one. They called him God's own yodeler, the Pavarotti of the plains. There's no bigger voice in Texas, Don Walser was his name.

TUCKER: As you've noticed by now, Slaid Cleaves possesses a beautifully dusty, yearning voice that rarely strains for poignancy or effusive sentiment. He has the distinctive gift of being able to describe lost loves in songs here such as "Gone" and "Without Her" without self-pity. And on this one called, "I Bet She Does," he pulls off a trick I'm not sure I've heard before: making clear his bitterness about a woman who rejected him - and who now regrets breaking his heart - without turning it into a surly, I-told-you-so song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BET SHE DOES")

CLEAVES: (Singing) They say she's trying to get a hold of me. That she's not the woman she once was. She's telling all her friends now she misses me. I'll bet she does. I turned off my phone a week ago. She sent a friend over today. I said, it's over, please don't waste my time. But she said it anyway.

(Singing) She misses you. You can see it in her eyes and besides, she told me so. Is there anything you want to whisper to her now that she wants again what once was? She says she misses you. I bet she does.

TUCKER: Cleaves has expressed his admiration for songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, and he tours a lot, but as he sings in a song about auto workers called "Rust Belt Fields," no one remembers your name just for working hard. You might, however, remember the name Slaid Cleaves for music as terse and clear and heartfelt as it is throughout "Still Fighting the War."

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album from Slaid Cleaves called "Still Fighting the War."

Coming up, we remember Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk, who condemned religious extremism in his country.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.