July 14, 2013

Slaid Cleaves is a travelin' man

Every year about this time, singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves hits the road from his home in Texas -- destination Maine -- performing and renewing acquaintances all along the way.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Slaid Cleaves, who grew up in South Berwick, will perform Thursday in Damariscotta and Friday in Portland. He made his way here on a tour he’s calling “The Migrator: Texas to Maine.”

Courtesy photos by Karen Cleaves

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Slaid Cleaves performing.

Additional Photos Below



WHEN AND WHERE: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Darrows Barn, Damariscotta River Association, Damariscotta;  8 p.m. Friday, One Longfellow Square, Portland

TICKETS: $20 advance/$10 students for Damariscotta; $20 advance, $25 at the door for Portland

INFO: 563-1393 or midcoastmusicfest.com for Damariscotta; 761-1757 or onelongfellowsquare.com for Portland

"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."

Pure genius.

"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:



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Additional Photos

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Cleaves relaxing at the family camp in Cherryfield.

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Slaid Cleaves' latest album, “Still Fighting the War,” below, was released this year.


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