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By Craig Hlavaty
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Around 1995, the Gavin company, a radio research firm, introduced the format Americana. The name itself led to the obvious question, What the hell is it? Like pornography, the prefab format's defining qualities were elusive. But you knew it when you heard it.
And over time, you learned to recognize the artists this way: People who either have rejected or have been rejected by Nashville and who think Texas is cool. Capital City's Slaid Cleaves is a prime example.
"Americana's the home for all of the mutts out there who don't have a regular category," Cleaves says. "I'm very comfortable with [the label]. I'm not a pure folkie, and I'm not a pure rocker, and I'm not a pure country guy. I'm a mutt. And Americana is the mutt category."
Americana is the dog pound for mutts too ornery, too mean, too old, too proud, too smart or too ugly to roll over at Nashville's command. The name Americana is most apt: Its practitioners can be found out here in what New Yorkers, Nashvillians and Angelenos think of as flyover country, the music business boondocks.
Not the music boondocks, mind you, but the music business boondocks, the provinces where music is still played and loved for its own sweet self rather than for a percentage off the top and publishing rights. Cleaves realized this when he made the jump from his native Maine to the South. "I ran through the list," he says. "New York and L.A. were too big to make the jump from Portland. Minneapolis was too cold, Seattle was too wet, Athens was over with by then. So it came down to Nashville and Austin. It seemed obvious that I needed a place to hone my talents and play in clubs, and I wasn't ready for that wheeling and dealing stuff that happens [in Nashville]. All that I've learned in the past few years has confirmed that Austin is the place to go to learn your craft, to study under the likes of Guy Clark and Ray Wylie [Hubbard]."
Spoken like a true Woody Guthrie disciple, which is what he is, like many of us who grew up in the '60s and '70s and learned at least one Guthrie song in grade school. Cleaves does most of us one better: He has actually co-written a song with the fascist-bashing Okie tunesmith, even though Guthrie died when Cleaves was two. "This Morning I Am Born Again," the fruit of this "collaboration," which appears on Cleaves's latest, Broke Down (Rounder), came about when Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, threw open her father's notebooks, which were brimming with song fragments and blank verse. Contemporaries like Billy Bragg and Wilco, along with Cleaves, thus had the rare opportunity to co-write with the John Steinbeck of folk.
Guthrie-like in his compassion for those branded as losers, Cleaves on Broke Down weaves third-person tales of despair born of fruitless toil ("Cold and Lonely"), too much whiskey ("Horseshoe Lounge," in which you can almost smell the love- and liquor-sick protagonists) and regrettable convergences ("Breakfast in Hell," a story of what happens when testosterone, a swollen river and a logjam meet). Yet unlike Guthrie, whose guitar bore the stenciled slogan "This machine kills fascists," Cleaves writes songs that are mostly apolitical. As he did with 1997's No Angel Knows, Cleaves again has teamed up with Gurf Morlix, the producer behind Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Perhaps the top producer working in Austin today, the multi-instrumentalist Morlix is a master of economy and space.
Cleaves's route to songwriting was less chosen than forced upon him by circumstance. Often an artist must leave home to begin to develop. After all, when you lay your humble offerings on the table for the first time, there is far less to fear if folks don't know you. Cleaves got past this treacherous "don't quit your day job" phase far from home, in the rain-soaked streets of an Irish seaport.
During his senior year, Cleaves had followed a restless girlfriend from Boston's Tufts University to Ireland's Cork University, planning on just finishing his degree. Oh, to be young and in love: Dumped within a week of his arrival on the Emerald Isle, Cleaves, with a lonely school year ahead, began to transform himself from musical dilettante to professional singer-songwriter. While he had worked up a repertory of juvenilia -- versions of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" and the like -- he had never written a song or wielded a guitar in anger until that "very formative" year abroad.
"So there I was sitting at my little bedside for nine months," he says. "I had no girlfriend, no family, no friends, no TV, no phone, no job. All I had was my guitar and a suitcase full of tapes of my parents' records.I got turned on by the busking scene, and started playing songs and building up my voice and learning how to sing and play."
All that listening to his parents' Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Everly Brothers records, along with his busking gigs at Cork, paid off. Armed with the musician's most important weapon -- confidence -- Cleaves headed back to Maine, where several years later he formed his first band, the Moxie Men. A couple of locally well-received years of rock later, Cleaves was seduced from afar by our fair state, which shares with Maine a peculiar sense of pride. Locals call it the Texas of New England. "Mainers are really proud," says Cleaves. "You know you can't really say you're from Maine unless you were born there. It's the biggest state around with the most wilderness and the fewest people, the most elbow room."
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