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Slaid Cleaves

Broke Down

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By Steve Morse  
artist

“It’s a bitter wind / in your face every day / It’s the little sins / That wear your soul away,” sings Slaid Cleaves on "One Good Year," and those lines capture the Austin-based singer/songwriter’s world view in a nutshell.  Like his subjects, Cleaves has strived against long odds, but unlike most of them he's tasted his share of success.  

Broke Down, the follow-up to 1997’s No Angel Knows, merged Cleaves’ evocative lyrics with straightforward country folk arrangements to produce some of the best work of his career.  Cleaves has evolved into such a skilled storyteller in large measure from experience. He began busking for change on the streets while attending college in Ireland in the '80s, then formed a moderately successful rock band (the Moxie Men) after returning home to Portland, Maine.  After that band dissolved, Cleaves moved to Austin and won the prestigious Kerryville New Folk Award in 1992. 

“It opened the folk door for me,” Cleaves told the Austin Chronicle, “but it was never a door I was interested in.  The vast majority of singers at that time were aspiring to be like James Taylor.  I always thought of folk as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.” 

Countless gigs and two CDs followed, but Cleaves seemed no closer to success.  He even signed up to participate in an experimental drug studies program at one point to help pay the bills.  Then his break came when Rounder Records showed interest in the demo that would became No Angel Knows.  Cleaves brings it all back home on Broke Down.  A magnetic vocal style, sometimes recalling the sly phrasing of mid-70’s Bob Dylan, and a sharp eye for the human condition make these tracks especially memorable. From portraits of melancholy barflies in "Horeshoe Lounge," to the title track’s simple metaphor for a life derailed, Cleaves gives a commanding performance.  As he sings on "One Good Year," "I’ve been chasing grace / but grace ain't so easily found.”  

Rock journalist Steve Morse is a veteran of the music industry and former Music Editor of the Boston Globe.