When it comes to the struggles of the wandering troubadour, Slaid Cleaves knows the perils of that life from top to bottom. He's sung on the street for his supper in Ireland and Boston, played in Punk and Roots Rock bands for little or no return, fixed his own van on the road and been hailed by The New York Times as "one of the finest songwriters from Texas" — which surprised his parents back in Maine.
It's a natural mistake; he's lived in Austin, Texas, since the early '90s, and he's absorbed the city's amazing vibe, combining it with his upbringing surrounded by his parents' Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Beatles, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash records.
After winning the New Folk category at Kerrville in 1992 (which had previously been awarded to Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle), Cleaves self-released a few albums before signing with Rounder for his 1997 major label debut, No Angel Knows, and its astonishing follow-up, 2000's Broke Down, both of which were produced by the great Gurf Morlix, who knows a thing or two about atmosphere.
In the subsequent 13 years, Cleaves has released a trio of well-received studio albums and a hot live set (2011's Sorrow & Smoke), but the four-year gap since his last studio record has made the arrival of his latest release, Still Fighting the War, all the sweeter.
The title track was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of photographs documenting returning Iraq War veterans coping with PTSD; with producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb's haunting guitar work and Cleaves' typically brilliant lyrics, it lives up to its inspiration.
Cleaves used that track as a launching pad for a whole set of songs about struggling through hard times, from the outsourced recessionary refugee of "Rust Belt Fields" ("Nobody remembers your name just for working hard”) to the son drawn into the same hard life as his father in "Welding Burns" ("He built his world on bone, muscle and blood and welding burns").
The vibe isn't entirely bleak on Still Fighting the Way. There's a lovely tribute to late Austin legend Don Walser ("God's Own Yodeler") and "Whim of Iron" is a funny character study of the kind of “free spirit” that everyone has probably known.They're all great additions to a catalog of songs that's already pretty difficult to whittle down to a set list; thank god that's Slaid Cleaves' problem and not mine.
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