“There’s a certain prejudice out there when it comes to albums like this.” At a cozy corner restaurant in his native New England, far from his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, songwriter, singer, and guitarist Slaid Cleaves is reflecting earnestly on the implications of his album, Unsung. “More than anything, I just want people to think of it as the new Slaid Cleaves album. It’s something of a new direction for me. It’s the first record I’ve made outside of Austin since I moved there 14 years ago. And the songs…the songs are less driven by narrative storytelling. More emotional, more expressive.”
Befitting his reputation as a songwriter who diligently labors over each word, each chord change, each detail in a song’s storyline, Cleaves is choosing his words carefully when describing Unsung. “I’ve given early copies of this record to a few close friends and fans,” he relates. “And the feedback has been really positive. One even said it was one of the strongest sets of songs I’ve ever recorded…”
“Then I had to tell her I didn’t write any of these.”
Don’t say “covers record” to Slaid Cleaves. Unsung is something else. Some days Slaid calls it a tribute album. But most days he doesn’t try to categorize it, as it is a logical extension of what he has done his entire performing career. “I’ve included other writers’ songs in my repertoire since the very beginning,” he explains. “At first it was because I had only a handful of my own songs and I was playing four-hour bar gigs. For every original song I played, I’d do probably one song by a hero, like Hank Williams or Bruce Springsteen; one song by a local songwriter friend like Josh Russell or Darien Brahms; and one that was fairly current.”
Unsung avoids the first trap door of songbook projects by focusing on those seldom-heard local voices. As the title implies, these are not well-known songs. Many have yet to see commercial release. These are songs from the songwriter trenches – compositions Cleaves first heard at late-night song-swaps, open-mic nights, during downtime at recording sessions, and on modest self-released CDs. Thanks to the work of producers David Henry and Rod Picott (a long-time Cleaves cohort and fellow Mainer), the performances and backdrops on Unsung are as evocative and captivating as the songs themselves. Cleaves’ gifts as an interpreter are such that the line between singer and song vanish completely.
Slaid Cleaves’ music is marked by both the quirky blend of isolated eccentricity and steely resilience of his Yankee upbringing and the weathered soul of Texas, the state he has called home for over a decade now. First registering on the national folk scene by winning the Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk competition in 1992, Cleaves released his national debut No Angel Knows (Philo/Rounder) in 1997, following a string of self-released albums and many nights logged in folk clubs as both a performer and a soundman. Met with effusive critical praise, No Angel Knows was followed by Broke Down (Philo/Rounder) in 2000, which expanded his audience exponentially by virtue of its exceedingly well-crafted songs and rugged Gurf Morlix production. In addition to the title track, a Picott collaboration that won Song of the Year at the Austin Music Awards in 2001, Broke Down featured a couple of interpretations of other writers’ songs that paved the way for Unsung, including a poignant reading of fellow Austinite Karen Poston’s “Lydia.”
2004’s Wishbones (Philo/Rounder) followed, a richly detailed exploration of life’s darker corners where still a ray of hope somehow shines. It was after the recording of Wishbones that Cleaves began to consider the endeavor that became Unsung. “Over the years,” Cleaves explains, “as I grew as a songwriter, my songs began to make up the bulk of my sets. But I continued to throw in the odd song by a hero or friend, both in my shows and on the records I made. I did that partly out of tribute to my influences, but also to give my set, or album, some context and some variety.”
“When I finally decided to pursue this project,” he continues, “I had to find the right songs. I already had five or six that I had been playing on the road that worked for me. The next step was finding another five or six that would compliment those. So I began going through CDs and cassettes, and, most importantly, through my memory – thinking about all the people I’ve shared bills with over the years.”
“I came up with 25 or 30 songs from that trawl,” he continues, “which I just started playing. I played them around the house, at shows, and made four-track recordings. It wasn’t about finding the good songs – they were all good by this point. I was looking for songs that worked, that fit my style of playing and singing. Not everything did. Even if it was a great song, it didn’t always click with my style. So I came to Nashville with about 20 songs, and Rod, David, and I further weeded them down to the 12 that are on the album.”
The songs that made the cut are a vivid lot. Steve Brooks’ lacerating character study “Everett” is marked by a dark sense of humor and droll perseverance that registers clearly through Cleaves’ terse vocal and a clattering percussive background. “Millionaire” comes from the pen of David Olney. “He has received a lot more recognition than anyone else on this record,” Slaid says, “but still not as much as he deserves.” Cleaves has sung the praises of singer/songwriter Adam Carroll for some time, and here delivers a warm version of Carroll’s affectionate “Racecar Joe.” “Adam played his first ever gig opening for me at a coffeehouse in his hometown of Tyler, Texas,” Slaid recalls. “Lydia” author Karen Poston is represented by the bittersweet “Flowered Dresses,” which Slaid sang harmony on in the author’s original recording. “In the studio,” he says, “I kept choking up on the line about ‘hugging my knees, holding my breath.’”
“Some of these songs go back ten years, to when I was doing open mics and the guy in front of me would come on and say ‘I just wrote this song,’” says Cleaves. “But I never bothered to learn one of these songs myself if it didn’t put a catch in my throat or a tear in my eye. If a song moves me in that way, which is a rare thing these days, it usually means I can do a good job singing it.” Finding songs like these and bringing them to the world was the entire purpose of Unsung. These are not obscurities for obscurity’s sake – these are remarkable songs that have been unjustly unsung for too long.