Just as it should, summer represents homecomings and reunions for Slaid Cleaves.
The Maine-bred singer-songwriter has lived in Texas almost half his life, moving there in 1991 to pursue his music. He’s 49 now, and hasn’t forgotten his roots.
He’s back in Maine for concerts Thursday at the Midcoast Music Fest in Damariscotta and Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland. In September, he returns to perform at Stone Mountain in Brownfield.
He comes home to Maine at least once a year, building a tour that begins in Texas and routes up through to Washington, D.C., where he was born, and into Maine and New England, where he grew up, went to school and began his career.
He’s calling this tour “The Migrator: Texas to Maine.”
Each stop along the way feels like a get-together with old friends, he said. When he plays in and around Boston, he hangs with friends he met in college. In Portsmouth, N.H., he connects with buds from nearby South Berwick, where he was raised and went to school.
In Portland, he socializes with musicians and friends he knew when he was learning how to work the crowd while playing in bars. In Damariscotta, he cajoles folks from nearby Bristol, where he spent time in the summer growing up.
When he performs Down East, he shares laughs with folks he hangs with at his family camp in Cherryfield.
“It’s like one big reunion all the way from Texas,” he said by phone during a tour stop last week. “It’s kind of funny and kind of amazing. I start this reunion tour in Texas and it extends halfway across the country all summer long.”
Cleaves has just released a new collection of songs, “Still Fighting the War.” It is the latest in a long string of well-crafted CDs that distinguish Cleaves for his penetratingly personal and evocative songs. An English major, Cleaves is nothing if not a storyteller and writer.
He writes songs that make you laugh, cry and wonder. He comes from a tradition of singer-songwriters — think John Prine or James McMurtry –who have the ability to turn a phrase just right to maximize the impact and image of the words.
When they work, his songs stick with you not only because of what they say, but because of Cleaves’ ability craft them so they feel seamless and natural. He doesn’t shoehorn words and phrases into spaces where they might not fit. He labors over his songs until he finds exactly the right words or phrase.
A good example of that effort is the title track to “Still Fighting the War.”
It’s a song about the demons of war, and how soldiers who return home often never leave their fight on the battlefield. It’s a song about broken homes, bad economics and forgotten promises. “You’ve been home for a coupla years now buddy, but you’re still fighting the war,” he sings.
“I started that song about four years ago,” he said. “In fact, it was the first thing I started working on after the previous record was done. It was originally more expansive, with a theme about being swindled and lied to. I wrote it in the depths and darkest part of the recession, and had a verse in there about the economy, a verse in there about a soldier, a verse in there about marriage. I knew it was too clunky, and I kept rewriting and editing, and finally narrowed it down to just the soldier’s story. That captured my imagination, and it felt more dramatic to me.”
He almost had the song finished, and was using the working title “The War to End All Wars.” But there was something about it that still didn’t feel right. One day, a buddy in Texas used the phrase “still fighting the war” in a conversation about a Vietnam War vet who recently died.
“He said, ‘All this time it was like he was still fighting the war,’ and that was the clincher,” Cleaves said.
He knew in that instant he had an image and phrase that would make a good song great.
“I said, ‘Ron, you just earned yourself a co-write.”
Indeed, Cleaves shares the writing credit with his friend Ron Coy.
That’s how songs happen. Cleaves gets an idea, and rolls it around in his head for weeks, months and sometimes years. He works at it, reworks it and jettisons words and phrases until they not only say what he wants them to say, but until they also sound just right coming out of his mouth.
Another example is the witty “Texas Love Song.” The gist of the tune: He loves his woman more than he loves Texas, which is saying something. As he originally wrote it, in a nod to the loyalties of Texans, he wrote, “I love you almost as much as I love Texas.” But the word “almost” kept tripping him up.
He committed the ultimate Lone Star sin, and substituted “even more than” for “almost,” and found it much easier to sing and also made the song more memorable and full of impact. For a Texan to love his woman more than he loves his state, he must really be in love.
Cleaves had fun with “Texas Love Song” trying to find words that rhyme with Texas and fit the theme of the song. Among the words that made the cut: perplexes, Lexus, multiplexes, solar plexus; and two phrases that make you laugh: “You know where all the tastiest Tex-Mex is” and “Let’s head out West where nobody can text us.”
“Still Fighting the War” feels more like a collection of songs than a thematic package of songs. Cleaves built some of his previous records around themes, giving the CDs the feel of a book or continuing narrative. This one is more jumbled and mixed.
“I wanted just to write whatever inspired me and in whatever way the inspiration led me, and not worry too much about grouping the songs together,” he said. He started with 17 songs, and whittled those down to 13.
The final song on the CD, “Voice of Midnight,” is an older tune, which he left off his previous studio record, “Everything You Love Will be Taken Away …” because “it felt too personal.”
It’s devastating, poignant and reflective. It’s one person’s narrative about reconciling death and the time we have on earth with our loved ones. Cleaves wrote as he began coming to terms with his own mortality.
“I was going through not a mid-life crisis, but my mid-40s realizing that everything I acquired in my life, everything I worked so hard for, I had reached the point in life that I would start losing those things. I started looking at the second half of my life as losing everything I had gained in the first half of my life.”
In the song, he asks that when the moment of reconciliation comes — when we hear the voice of midnight — will we have the courage to face our end with grace and dignity, safe in the memory of friends?
All he asks is time to say proper goodbyes.
“I’d like to know when it’s coming,” he sings, “Just a little time to prepare.”
He almost left the song off this album, too. He brought it to his producer feeling a little sheepish. “I was little unsure of it,” he said. “I asked, ‘Should we do this?’ He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we should do it.’ “
He and producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb made a haunting recording, but Cleaves still feels uncertain about the song.
At the time of this interview, he had yet to perform it live.
Too personal? Maybe. Probably.
“It’s just so direct,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: