In 2012, Slaid Cleaves finished writing the songs for “Still Fighting the War” (Music Road Records - 2013).
“I really haven’t written anything in two years,” the singer/songwriter confessed in a recent telephone interview from his home near Austin. “The longer it goes, the scarier it gets. It’s hard staring at a blank page.”
On Saturday, July 12, Cleaves will be the first artist to perform in the newly-renovated Sulphur Springs city council chambers. Crossroads Music Company and Listening Room will be sponsoring the acoustic concert.
Hopkins County is the third stop on Cleaves’ summer tour. His wife, Karen, manages the business part of his career.
The Maine native says life on the road has its ups and downs.
“When things are going well, it can be great,” he explained. “Karen does a fantastic job. She takes really good care of me. We work hard. She takes care of the flights at six in the morning and makes sure drives aren’t more than four-five hours and that the hotels are nice. It takes a lot of work.”
Cleaves’ favorite part of touring is “when things are going well and people are showing up and I’m connecting with them making them happy at the shows, I think I could do this forever, honestly. I could just keep going.”
When things start going wrong or they miss a flight, the tendency is to pack up and head to home.
“When things are out of control or go bad, it doesn’t take very long for moods to change and you want to be home in your own bed,” he confessed.
Cleaves’ music is perfectly suited for a listening room experience. He’s a complete storyteller, covering every aspect of life. He not only entertains his audiences – he informs them.
“Still Fighting the War” shares one man’s view of war, death, unfilled dreams, true love, bad breakups and mortality.
Cleaves has been working on the upcoming tour, but took time to offer insights into some of the songs from “Still Fighting the War.”
Still Fighting the War
This tune looks at the aftermath of war, up close and personal.
I was working on a song about returning veterans and was calling it “The War to End All Wars,” but I really wasn’t happy with that.
My friend Ron (of “Wranglin’ Ron”) actually wrote the title of the song.
He was trying to acknowledge the passing of a Vietnam war buddy who had a really hard time getting back into society – who never really did.
Ron said the whole time he was home, he was still fighting the war. It was the perfect title for the song, so he got co-write credit on that one.
As for how the song resonates with his audience, Cleaves says:
I know from being a songwriter a long time that if you tell someone’s story, it means a lot to them, especially people who go through something as searing as military service.
It doesn’t happen at every show, buy when there is a thank you for it, it’s powerful. When it hits the right person, it hits them really hard and they are so appreciative.
A look at what happens after the loss of a love. In this case, the love was Cleaves’ dog, Huddie.
She was a neighborhood stray and we took care of her.
When we got her she had a belly full of worms, so we called her “Lead Belly” after the [legendary] blues singer, whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter, so we called her Huddie.
She traveled with us every summer on the road. For 16 years, she was always willing to get back in the car no matter how many miles we drove. She was a good companion.
What happens if all your childhood dreams crash and burn?
That came from a guy named Mike Morgan from Ohio that I don’t know really well, but he sends me lyrics once in a while. Sometimes they strike a chord.
The initial version just really struck me and I worked really hard fashioning it into a song I could fit into my set list.
The seed was there about small town life. I have some nieces and nephews going through a similar thing. You watch them group up and you have all these hopes for them, but they have to find their own path.
This one tells the story of two people who find ever-elusive, true, long-lasting love.
I’ve got a friend from high school, Nicole St. Pierre, who is still in our hometown raising a family. She was a language arts teacher for a while.
She’ll send me a poem with no melody. I’ll rework it until it fits into a melodic pattern.
It was a fun exercise into squeezing an entire life into just four verses.
I Bet She Does
Should be the anthem for anyone who has moved on after a heartbreak.
That one started out 10 years ago. There was an article in a magazine about [Texas singer-songwriter] Lucinda Williams.
Williams and Gurf Morlix, her former guitar player and producer, had gone through an acrimonious breakup.
I’ve made five records with Gurf. We became close.
Morlix was interviewed for the article.
[Of Williams], the reporter told Gurf “She misses you,” and Gurf said, “I bet she does.”
That was the germ of the song. Anything else I made up.
It took me forever, too. I started on it 10 years ago when I was working on the “Wishbone” album.
I got about half-way through and got stuck. I put it in my junkyard pile and gave up on it.
When I was just a few songs short of an album for this one, I thought, “I gotta make this thing work.” I finally did.
Texas Love Song
A tongue-in-cheek send up of Texas-sized pride:
That was a fun song to write. When we were almost done with the record, I was driving to the studio and it struck me – I’ve gotta get a girl singing on this.
I’d just done some shows with Terri Hendrix [Texas singer/songwriter]. She had a bad cold, so I had to wait for her to get better.
She just trooped into the studio and just nailed it.
Go for the Gold
Why the Golden Rule matters.
I tacked it on to the end of the live record (“Sorrow and Smoke”).
I’ve edited it down a bit for the studio version.
Somehow, I was just playing with the idea of the Golden Rule and how we kinda forget about it and how it shouldn’t be secondary. There should be nothing above the Golden Rule.
It’s the one you have to keep in your mind, no matter what religion you are.
A bright and breezy romp about a Jack of All Trades.
He is an old friend – a very colorful character. He’s led a very interesting life. He’s done a lot of different things for jobs. He’s a very sociable guy who’s fun to be around.
Sometimes, I write about him. Sometimes, he sends me ideas that I end up working into songs.
Voice of Midnight
Cleaves turned 50 last month. This song speaks to mortality and our final wishes.
I almost did not put that one on the record.
We were almost done.
I told my producer, Scrappy Judd Newcomb, “I have a few more songs I’ve demoed that I’m not sure I want to record.”
The first one, he wasn’t too crazy about but, when he listened to “Voice of Midnight,” he said, “Yeah, you’ve gotta put that one on.”
I was hesitant. It’s so direct. [As songwriters] sometimes we let the veil drop.
On this one, it drops all the way down.
We decided to give it a stab.
I think the reason I kept it on the record is because of Scrappy’s beautiful, haunting guitar work on it that makes it very special.
It’s not on the set list right yet.
For our sake, maybe he will change his mind and add it for the July 12 show at City Hall.
It’s a powerful statement on how to make a graceful exit.
When asked to give his impressions of fellow singer/songwriters, Cleaves offered the following:
Guy Clark: Master
Steve Earle: Troubador
Joe Ely: Rock ‘n’ Roller
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Character
Rodney Crowell: Gentleman
Townes Van Zandt: Tortured
Willis Alan Ramsey: One record wonder
Jerry Jeff Walker: Party Host
James McMurtry: Wordsmith
Robert Earl Keen: The original
Lyle Lovett: Perfectionist
Terri Hendrix: Good people
Rosie Flores: Genuine
Marcia Ball: Classy
Tickets to the Slaid Cleaves show are $20 and can be purchased at Crossroads Music Company’s website, www.crossroadsmusic.com. Click on “store” and then click on “shop” and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page.
For more information about Slaid Cleaves, visit
www.slaidcleaves.com or follow him on Facebook.
To watch a video of Cleaves singing "Without Her," click here.
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