The characters found in “Ghost on the Car Radio,” the new record from longtime local troubadour Slaid Cleaves, are easy to empathize with, and to believe. Mom-and-pop shopfolk decimated by big box stores. Blue-collar workers tied to the take-home pay. A worn-out automobile destined for the junkyard.
They’re a varied lot, but they share this: None of them are Slaid Cleaves.
The 52-year-old musician, who moved to Austin from Portland, Maine, a quarter-century ago, has made his mark in the crowded singer-songwriter genre largely by writing keenly about subjects other than himself. Introspective confessionalism isn’t inherently a faux pas, but it can become a crutch. Songwriters in it for the long haul are well-served to get out of their own skin, something Cleaves learned along the way.
“I think my very early writing was pretty self-centered,” he says. “As long as I had three verses and a chorus and it made me feel something, then it was good, for me.
“Then after a few cassettes and a few batches of songs, and several years of struggling to find an audience, I realized that that wasn’t good enough. And I had the revelation that my song needs to work for somebody else.”
He took a cue from one of his heroes. “Woody Guthrie said, ‘Let me be the man who told you what you already know,’” Cleaves says. “I sort of translated that to myself, and my own goal is this: It’s not my job to tell you how I feel. It’s my job to write a song that other people recognize themselves in.
“I can still use my own personal experience and feelings and emotions (to inform the songs). But they have to be recognizable to somebody.”
Cleaves, who celebrates the release of “Ghost on the Car Radio” with a Sunday show at Stateside at the Paramount, now has two decades’ worth of albums that stand up to his own personal litmus test. He’s been on a roll since 2000’s “Broke Down,” his second record for the prominent folk label Rounder.
A surprise hit with folk and Americana audiences both here and overseas, it served notice that the guy who used to play open mics all over town in the early ’90s had in fact become one of Austin’s best songwriters. But that breakthrough brought its own reckoning.
“I felt like I finally made the record I’d been trying to make for 10 years,” he says. “And as soon as the record was done, I was staring at a blank slate. … When ‘Broke Down’ took off, it was so joyful and so exciting that I don’t think I wrote anything for about two years.”
Gradually, he learned to be patient, and to follow routines that eventually allowed the songs to come. “In the early days, I would pack a lunch and a blanket and drive off in my car and find a state park or something, and vow that I wouldn’t come home till I wrote a song,” he says.
It’s a bit easier today. When he and his wife, Karen, moved to Wimberley a few years ago, they got a place with a guest house that serves as a writing retreat. “I’ll pack a suitcase and a cooler, and go down there for three or four days. Karen will sometimes bring me a hot dinner, bless her heart. But otherwise, I leave all the chores of day-to-day behind and just focus on writing.”
Co-writers also have been a not-so-secret part of Cleaves’ success for most of his career. Austin fixtures Graham Weber, Nathan Hamilton and Karen Poston share credits on three of the new album’s tracks, but four bear the name of Rod Picott, Cleaves’ most trusted compadre since they met in elementary school in Maine. Picott now lives in Nashville but plays Austin regularly.
“He and I have developed a really fine-tuned sense of what we want of our songs, and we push each other to reach and exceed those goals,” Cleaves says. “There’s two or three songs on the new record that could have been done a year or two ago, that I even played out and was fairly happy with. But either he or I would just keep working on them, trying to get better.”
Though the Cleaves/Picott partnership has been vital to both writers’ repertoires over the years, there’s one credit that still leaves Cleaves a bit amazed: “Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Slaid Cleaves.” That’s what the small print says when you look up the song “This Morning I Am Born Again” on the official Woody Guthrie website. There’s a story behind that, and it involves the late Austin troubadour Jimmy LaFave.
Cleaves moved to Austin in December 1991, knowing almost no one but convinced he’d come to the right place when he and Karen ventured out on New Year’s Eve and happened upon the legendary Don Walser playing at Henry’s Bar & Grill. Buoyed by the spirit and creativity of the music here, he started picking up occasional gigs at barbecue joints such as Green Mesquite and Artz Rib House while regularly signing up for open mics at Chicago House, Cactus Cafe and the Austin Outhouse.
It was at Chicago House, the space now occupied by Tellers on Trinity Street downtown, that LaFave first heard Cleaves. Impressed by the young transplant’s warm tenor voice and folksy charm, he recommended Cleaves for an early slot on a big Woody Guthrie tribute at La Zona Rosa featuring Butch Hancock, Ray Wylie Hubbard and many other luminaries of the early-’90s Austin country-folk scene.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is my chance to make an impression,’” Cleaves remembers. “So I needed to come up with the coolest, most obscure Woody Guthrie song, to get people’s attention.”
His good fortune was that his wife recently had bought a new book of previously unpublished Woody Guthrie writings for him. “So I flipped through it and looked for some verses I could put to music. I found ‘This Morning I Am Born Again,’ put it to music and played it at the show. I think I was the second act, and played for about 12 people. But obviously Jimmy heard it.”
LaFave urged Cleaves to send a tape of the song to the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York. He sent one, and then another a little later after not hearing back. LaFave went to bat for Cleaves as well, and when Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie took over the archive from former Guthrie manager Harold Leventhal, the tide began to turn.
Finally, sometime in the mid-late ’90s Cleaves got the word from Nora. “She called me and said, ‘Congratulations, we’re going to publish this song as “Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Slaid Cleaves.”’ Man, what a thrill that was,” he says, still moved by the memory two decades later.
Cleaves then recorded the song for “Broke Down.” In what appears to be a case of parallel development, the Waterboys’ Mike Scott had written different music to the same set of lyrics as Cleaves. Soon enough, Nora had recruited Billy Bragg and Wilco to make “Mermaid Avenue,” the 1998 album that kicked off what has now become an extensive series of records in which contemporary musicians have set music to the abundance of Guthrie lyrics on file in the archive.
“Nora confirmed this to me two years ago, that I was the first person to do that,” Cleaves says. “And that Harold Leventhal was against it, and literally threw the cassette in the trash can. She picked it out and put it on the shelf for later.”
It’s one of many legacies that can be traced largely to the efforts of LaFave. Two months ago, just three days before LaFave died of cancer, Cleaves told that story to a full house at the Paramount Theatre, with Jimmy watching in the wings. Then he played the song:
“I give myself, my heart, my soul to give some friend a hand/ This morning I was born again, I am in the promised land.”
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, July 16.
Where: Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.