Together, in song and sorrow

Slaid Cleaves on sad songs, Hank Williams and the art of yodeling

Slaid Cleaves appreciates the power of a good sad song. He’s written a few good ones of his own, too — songs about displacement, songs about grief, songs about mortality. Cleaves is certainly the only artist in American music to write a song (“Temporary”) with lyrics assembled from tombstone epitaphs.

“Hey, we’re going to sing a lot of sad songs tonight,” Cleaves often says on stage, kindly, cordially, as a matter of introduction. “And somehow, it’s going to make us all happy.”

It’s true, too. People do leave his shows with a smile. Slaid Cleaves understands the intimate nature of sorrow and song, how the delicate and direct acknowledgment of pain, through music, brings us together, heightens our sense of humanity.

“That’s the whole reason for art, isn’t it? To let people know they’re not alone,” says Cleaves, sitting in an Austin recording studio, talking about how music and art touch him. “Isn’t that the whole reason? Other people suffer — and you’re not alone in your suffering?”

Cleaves, 49, has established himself as one of the best singer-songwriters in town since moving to Austin, from Maine, more than 20 years ago. His stage manner is earnest, sincere — and his singing voice, a rich tenor, is as sweet as honey. But it’s the grit in his songs, the hard truth in the honey, that sets him apart.

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Cleaves’ new album, “Still Fighting the War,” frequently touches upon themes of separation — through the eyes of an Iraq War veteran (“Still Fighting the War”), a factory worker outsourced out of a job (“Rust Belt Fields”), a man saying goodbye to love through generations (“Gone”), and a person considering his impending death (“Voice of Midnight”). Cleaves is very good at articulating the sensation of standing alone, outside, or apart.

“The honesty of his approach is really the bottom line,” says Austin guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who plays in Cleaves’ band and co-produced the new album. “He has a real gift for singing about the sadness and the loneliness that we all feel. (Slaid is) so aware of reality, the fragility of existence.

“You’ve heard the expression: ‘It’s so beautiful it hurts?’ … Like Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams, there’s something in that voice that takes you there.”

First loves

Slaid Cleaves’ first encounter with a sad song? The Hank Williams’ tune “Kaw-Liga.” A vinyl 45 rpm single, playing on his dad’s mono phonograph. It was, he says, the first song that made him cry.

“Hank’s voice is just so elemental, you know. Like a dog howling,” says Cleaves. “And those minor keys! I could barely speak, after hearing ‘Kaw-Liga.’ Somehow, I understood that the minor key made it sad somehow — this song about a wooden Indian. It worked on me, and it was spooky.

“The song is kind of a joke to adults, I know. But to a kid, it was friggin’ tragic. It broke my heart. Poor old wooden Indian, ‘with his heart of knotty pine.’ Poor old Kaw-Liga. Never got a kiss.”

As a teenager, Cleaves was most influenced by the sad songs of Bruce Springsteen. Cleaves loved “The River.” And he really fell for the 1982 album “Nebraska” — a spare, acoustic album that addressed themes of darkness and despair in America. During his days as a young street musician in Maine, Cleaves played Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” and the entire “Nebraska” album.

Those Springsteen songs made a deep impression and led him, as well, to the music of Woody Guthrie. During his days at Tufts University — where he majored in literature and philosophy — Cleaves sought out Guthrie’s “Library of Congress Recordings” with Alan Lomax. He’d listen to them on headphones, in the school library.

“The ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ album hadn’t resonated with me. It was just song after song,” recalls Cleaves. But the “Library of Congress” recordings felt alive — “Woody and Alan and a pint; Alan asking questions; Woody telling stories and setting up songs.”

Cleaves came to love Guthrie’s writing style, his homespun way of communicating. But he was equally charmed by stories of riding the rails and living through the Depression and hanging out with hobos. The tragic story of his own family. The palpable pulse of desperation… .

“I remember when I first started to go see music, I remember trying to figure out why I was so enthralled to see musicians and what I wanted most to see in a musician,” he says. “And there was something about desperation. For some reason, I wanted to see them on the edge. I wanted to see them play desperately. I was really into punk rock and stuff, too. To see that emotion and abandon.

“That’s not something I do. But maybe — just thinking aloud — it’s something I’ve transmuted into some other thing.”

Carrying on

Slaid Cleaves’ affinity for Springsteen and Williams and Woody Guthrie is evident on “Still Fighting the War.” Although the title cut decries the plight of returning veterans suffering from emotional trauma — “How many heroes are scattered out in the wind?” — the aim of the song is humanitarian, not political. As in: Let’s recognize the suffering out there… .

But there are also songs that appear to run against that form. “God’s Own Yodeler,” for example, celebrates the life and world-view of the late, legendary Don Walser — a country yodeler from Lamesa whose singing voice was so beautiful that he was dubbed “The Pavarotti of the Plains.”

Cleaves sought out Walser when he moved to Austin, years ago. He took an interest in yodeling and occasionally sat in with Walser’s band. Today, Cleaves does three or four “yodel” tunes at every live show — and on songs like “Rolling Stone from Texas” he pushes the limits of speed and range and breath.

“Don taught me a lot of little yodeling tricks,” says Cleaves. “Once I got to know him, I’d hang out after the shows, until he’d sign all his autographs, ‘shaked and howdy-ed.’ And I’d say, ‘Don, on “Texas Top Hand,” I can’t figure out the yodel. It’s just so fast. My brain just can’t process it.’

“So I’d ask him to sing it for me, slowly … and amazingly, he could do that! He could do it in ‘slow-motion.’ I have to move up and belt ’em out. But Don could yodel like he could talk … . I learned so much from him … about respecting the audience to the utmost. He never, never turned down a request, even if he already played the song earlier in the night, he would honor the request. He was adamant about that.”

When Walser’s health started to decline in 2003, Cleaves occasionally visited him at home — and as the years passed, sometimes in the hospital. He’d bring friends, swap stories, play music for the man. As a tribute. And as a gesture of love.

“I wish I’d done it more often,” says Cleaves, “because just being around him, singing the music, seeing him well up or laugh, seeing how appreciative he was, hearing him tell stories, was so fulfilling, so much of a reminder of how powerful a part music can play in people’s lives. You know?

“It can move people in a way that nothing else does. It can heal people, in a way, when there’s nothing else to heal them.”

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