Considering his lifelong love of sad songs, Slaid Cleaves understands if people appreciate his music more than they outright enjoy it.
“It's folk music. You know, I grew up in New England, and there's a folk singer up there just passed away (in 2011) named Bill Morrissey. ... I might be paraphrasing, but I think what he said once is ‘Folk music is not to be enjoyed; it is to be endured,'” Cleaves said with a laugh.
“I think I've always loved sad songs. I remember crying to the song ‘Kaw-Liga,' the old Hank Williams song about the wooden Indian, which is a goofy little song. But it's heartbreaking to a little 5-year-old who hears about the wooden Indian that falls in love with the other wooden Indian across the way and then somebody takes the woman Indian away. ... But it didn't depress me. I think it's a good feeling to get a good cry out there, and hearing sad songs is somehow uplifting to me.
“I mean, the only depressing songs that I've ever heard are just songs that are bad, like badly written songs. Those depress me.”
With his latest album, “Still Fighting the War,” Cleaves, 49, explores harsh realities like soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (the title track), blue-collar laborers seeing their jobs move overseas (“Rust Belt Fields”) and sons dealing with the complicated legacies of their fathers (“Welding Burns”).
Released in June on Oklahoma-bred songsmith Jimmy LaFave's Music Road Records, the Austin, Texas, resident's 10th album in his more than two-decade career fearlessly delves into the lingering aftermath of war and recession.
“I grew up on storytelling music. I grew up in the late '70s and early '80s on Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and people like that. Tom Waits. So, yeah, it's not party music. It's kind of hard-hitting music. But it's music that depicts life, the life that's around us, and helps us articulate our own struggles as we go through 'em,” Cleaves said by phone from the road in Greenwich, Conn.
“It takes awhile for me to soak in what's going on in the world and then to get the song written, which sometimes takes a long time, and get the album written. So, I was kind of worried that I'd get out this record, and we'd be all in happy days and everything and nobody would want to hear about the hard times. But it looks like we're in for some hard times for awhile.”
Finding a niche
The Maine native was enthralled with music from a young age and formed a rock 'n' roll band in high school. But it took many years to develop his straightforward, literary songwriting style.
“In my early years, as I struggled to find my own voice, some of the best advice I got — one of the only good pieces of advice I got — was someone who said, ‘Uh, yeah, you're almost there, but you really haven't found your voice yet. I hear a little Springsteen, I hear a little Buddy Holly, I hear a little of this, a little of that. You don't really have your own thing yet.' And that was hard to hear, 'cause I kind of thought I'd had my own thing. But I hadn't yet. I hadn't developed my own special sauce or whatever you call it.