Friday, September 1, 2017

"Ghost on the Car Radio" - Slaid Cleaves

I first heard Slaid Cleves on a local PBS station a number of years ago.  It was a song called "Quick as Dreams," a beautiful story of horses, friendship, loss, sadness and, perhaps, salvation.  I just remember the song ending and me saying to myself, I gotta learn that song.  Stop by the porch anytime the light's on, and I'll play it for you.

(I've been staring at this screen now for ten minutes, I even went up for a fresh cup of coffee, and I can't figure how to proceed - which is unlike me.  I usually just let the words and ideas take me where they will but, today my mind is taking me somewhere I don't really want to go, a place, a situation - I don't really understand - something I'd rather not admit.)

Here goes.

I listen to a lot of music these days.  I take nostalgic trips back to old tunes that shaped me and shake my head at some of the songs I thought were good realizing, well, otherwise.  I hear tunes, new and old, that I've not known.  I've been heavy into Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana and Roots music.  I give some of the current pop stars a chance, to mixed results.  And, truth is, I do it all on Spotify.  There, I've said it.

We've got a paid subscription, and I think it's wonderful.  It rarely fails to come up with the song I want to hear, especially all my old favorites, and, through algorithms and computery-magic-computation stuff it gives me stations - pop country from the seventies, western swing, one based on the music of Guy Clark - and new music and hot hits and all that.  I come upon some great things I've never encountered, tunes and albums I would never hear otherwise.   I'd be lying if I didn't give the credit to Spotify for this renaissance I've been experiencing.

I know, I know... listening to music on Spotify is not how most artists want their music listened to.  A recent article in the Washington Post states that an artist gets seven dollars for every 1,000 plays - that's a lot of plays.

Oh, and it gets worse, and I'm going to help that along.  You see, I also listen to a lot of music on YouTube - or do I view it?  I like to take a look at the artist, get the vibe, see the instruments, and, confession time again, try to crib the chords from live performances.  And for every 1,000 plays on YouTube the artist - or performer or ham or scammer - gets exactly... a buck.

So, just to be clear, I'm using the least profitable platforms to listen to, share, and steal music from artists I very much like.

I'm an awful person, so, I'm going to link to YouTube videos in this post and direct you to Spotify (link) and generally do what most musicians probably hate... bother.

Well, now that that intro-interruptus has been endured, I'll continue my previously scheduled introduction.

After I learned that first song, I delved a little deeper into his music.  I listened to his older tunes, he's been at this a long time, and really got a taste for his style and all that.  And then, as will happen, I sort of set him aside and found new places to go.  But then, a few months back, I heard a new track of his on one of those personalized Spotify playlists, "Your Release Radar," I think it's called, and remembered what a profound singer-songwriter he is.

Folks recommend music to each other all the time, but what Ive noticed is that they don't always say why.  They'll say, This is the greatest Such-n-Such album ever!  And, I'll think well, I like Such-n-Such or I've never heard of Such-n-Such, I should give it a listen, but I'm never quite sure what I am listening for.

Also, I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.  I'm not a musicologist.  Style confuses me,  terminology escapes me, and, honestly, I have trouble figuring out what the time signature is in most songs. I do know words and stories and that is what Slaid Cleaves does best for me.

Here's a link (I think it's the official one, but I like this one better) to the first song on the album - am I still allowed to say it that - 'album'?  It's called "Already Gone" (here, also, is a link to the lyrics of all the songs from his official site), and it's a perfect introduction to the melodic roads we are about to...

You know what?  I don't know how to do this... just bear with, if you don't mind.

The chorus to "Already Gone" is:

Time's running out and you can't help believing but
Here you are now at the end of the song
Down fall the tears when you hear the silence
When you finally know that you're already gone

I often feel I'm at the end of my song..  I'd guess we all do, sometimes.  In one of the verses he says ...May not have gotten all that I dreamed of / Pretty sure I got what I deserved.  Life's like that.  

I've driven across the country six or eight times in my life.  In later years, as I did it alone, this very thing happened:

Heard an old ghost on the car radio
Under a diamond sky
Sang along as the wheels beneath me rolled
Cast my troubles out into the night

He finishes the verse with Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders / Feel some kind of mercy in the wind.

He opens the song with Young love breaks like a wave on the shoreline / A rolling crash and it's gone  and ends with mercy in the wind, I can't think of a prettier pair of metaphors to bracket the span of adulthood. 

In "Drunken Barber's Hand" he says:

I don't need to read the papers
Or the tea leaves to understand
That this world's been shaved
By a drunken barber's hand

I kinda feel like that's all I really know about this song.  I suspect a few other things, but, as with all good poetry, my notion of a world shaved by a drunken barber's hand may be a lot different than yours.  I suppose it could be about environmental issues or some such thing, but, for me, it just means this world is a pretty messed up place and yet, here we are.

I rode ten thousand miles
On a carousel horse of wood
We end up where we started
Get right back on if we could

I know I would.

I thought "If I Had A Heart" was a really good song, but I was wrong... it's damn near perfect.  You see, I initially under judged it.  I didn't go where the song, I think, ultimately wants to lead me.  I thought the song was a love song, perhaps one about unrequited love between an older man and a young girl (maybe it is, I dunno, or, maybe worse, I'm the only one who thought that) but, after several listenings I finally got it.  It's not a love song, it is the love song - a song to a child, to a son.

Then you come around
With your soft young skin
With no idea what you're about to step in
And in these times you remind me
Of the man I used to be
If I had a heart, you'd be breaking it now

It's a song explaining the implicit difficulties and juxtapositions, the twists and turns of this thing we call life.  He starts the song with:

The more I see, the less I understand
The harder I work, the poorer I feel
The deeper the faith, the more I'm broken
The more I hear, the less it all seems real
And later sings:

You'll see truth, turned into lies
Light turned to dark, hearts broke in two
Just one thing, before I die
I want to make one lie come true

"... make one lie come true."  Man, ain't that the truth.

One of my favorite things about Slaid is his willingness to take me along with him, and here, in sort of the center of the album, he does just that. I feel like he's just driving me, us, around in an old seventy-four Pontiac and meeting some of the crowd.

In "Little Guys" we meet Butch and Evelyn's boy.  He's a nice guy, a good son, and he knows the truth about what he's seeing as his little town gets too big for it's britches.

Stop lights we had one, now there's four
And you can't see the shop from Main street anymore
There's a new H.E.B. 'cross town
But over here things are slowing down
As I turn out the lights, lock up my front door
Mom and pops like us don' t have a place in the world today
The little guy shops don' t stand a chance when the big guys start to play

He knows it ain't right.

But he also knows a deeper truth, I truth that he owns here:

Oil and grime in the pores of my skin
Think of all the brake dust I've been breathin' in
I got a stack of new regulations
And high tech specifications
I can't keep up, too old to go to school again

He speaks of joining the old men mornings at the coffee shop after he closes his own.  He pipe-dreams, Or I could set up the navigation / Head out and see the nation, but we all know he'll be turning wrenches at B & E Auto until he dies - that's what "little guys" do.

Now, we're leaning against that old Pontiac '74, painted "Primer Gray" with a new alternator and stock drivetrain.  Specifically, somebody's dad is telling us about his old car.  But, truly, it's every dad, lamenting, perhaps lost times and races, or, simply, the passage of time.  But, the passage of time yields wisdom and Everydad drops some.

'Cause you don't need that flash and shine
You just need to be hard off the line
So keep your lacquer chrome and flames
I'll paint mine primer gray

He knows me.  He says I know the things men hold inside, I understand what he means by thatHe knows I am, or was, one of the Kids today, they all want something more.  I'm the guy talking to his buddies down at Dickie's - I pulled the engine with a block and chain ? Got the oil pump in just before the rain - a triumph we all can dig.  I'm the boy under a ramped rear-end, marveling as his dad explains the mysteries of a clutch and transmission.  I am that dad, later, desperately trying to explain a lesson that takes so long to understand.

The final couplet of the song is:

It's what you do, not what you say
I'll paint mine primer gray

You know, I can only guess at what a songwriter means or where he found inspiration.  The process is emotional, fraught with errors and misunderstandings, and so very personal at both ends - the artist and the audience.  But, I wanna say that just the other day as I got ready to shave and was taking myself in, I saw my beard and my hair, my mustache and my eyebrows, and said aloud to mirror, "I guess I'll paint mine primer gray."

I've been neglecting the musicality of these songs, so far it seems like I'm talking about stories or poems.  As I said earlier I don't think I'd be good at that, talking music, but it doesn't mean I leave unexplored the melody and rhythm and key and such...

That's a lie, I totally leave it all alone, I don't notice it until I try to think about it.  "Primer Gray" made me feel melancholy, nostalgic, haunted.  I later noticed that it's also in "E", one of the most round and open and honest of keys, lending itself well to sevenths and minors and wispy slide guitar solos and...

I'm sorry, I don't seem to have the right nomenclature.

Or maybe I do.

The song "Hickory" did the same to me, the music waited in my periphery as I focused on the words.  But later, when I considered the chords and melody, phrasing and tonality (basically, when I was cribbing the song from videos so I could play it), I was flummoxed by the grace and beauty of the melody.  A melody simple, familiar, and true. Those beautiful whole and soft G, D, and C acoustic chords make the story so listenable.

In less polished hands "Hickory" could be sappy or sentimental, it is not.  It's a familiar story: a beautiful thing brought down in the sadness that is time and progress and the waiting for - and, perhaps, trusting in - redemption.  It wafts in on the wind, as though from across a parking lot, and compels you to lean into it.  It is confessional and private.  There is a moment in the song - a moment I will let you discover - that truly is breath-taking.  A moment you forgot to expect, that moment where the story tells itself.

Just take a look at this stanza:

Heard saws on the mountain, saw the trucks rumble by
Filing past like a funeral line
Those big iron trailers were piled up high
With hickory, walnut and pine

You can hear those saws, abrasive and raw; you can see them old diesel trucks, round and belching black exhaust, lumbering and growling on dirt roads and switchbacks; you can reach out and touch the bark of a newly felled tree, warm and moist from sun and sap, and then run your hand down the rusty, cold, and dry iron.

Really, give this song a listen, or stop by the porch when the light's on and I'll sing it for ya, hell, I can even play it in the dark.

I can't seem to shake my imaginary scene here in the parking lot of Dickie's Place.  Another guy - a friend of Butch's boy's, I imagine they played football together back in the day - opens his story, "Take Home Pay," with a couple solid electric chords and a quick bass riff that both floats and drives and these words:

Been hanging rock for twenty-odd years now
Six days a week and I can't keep up
My shoulder burns like a grinding gear box
These young crews are too fast and tough

I never hung sheet-rock, but my shoulders sure do burn from thirty-plus years of throwing boxes, trays of food, baby boys, and an occasional friend or foe on mine.  I've rarely been in "fast and tough" situations, but I've been passed up for younger folks.  I know not being able to keep up.

This is why I find his songwriting so rich and captivating.  In spelling out small details, using first person, shaping a particular scene, manipulating my senses, he paints universal themes.

That's what storytellers do.  He's telling us that in this chorus:

Schemers scheme around the edges
Dreamers dream of better days
Everyone knows what the catch is
It's all about the take home pay

The take home pay is what we get in the end, severance for our pain; sometimes it is money, sometimes it's just getting through another damn day - and sometimes it's poetry and magic.

Well, you know what, we've been standing in this parking lot for a while now, let's go have one last round inside with "The Old Guard".

Dickie's Place is a tavern where I often go
Like tonight when this heart of mine is achin' low
Through swinging doors I hear the voice of old George Jones
I find myself a bar stool and I'm right at home

Damn, I'm pretty sure I've been here before.  In fact, I may have tended bar here.  Familiar faces, old friends, lots of beer, memories, stories...

The old guard down at Dickie's drinks up all night long
Every face, lined and weary, hides a country song
Ruined lives, broken dreams, countless cold regrets
On the jukebox, their stories told in silhouette

Cheatin' Hearts, Crazy Arms, now it's Crying Time
Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme
Every night we get together to be with our own
And the old guard feels a little less alone

The songwriting is so clever here.  The sound and mix echoes out of the seventies country scene, with a little western swing and catchy guitar hook that makes you smile every time.

I was dozens of times into listening to this song before I actually looked at the lyrics, and then I saw it.  I was so mesmerized by the ease of the lyrics, the poetry of them, I didn't hear it at first, didn't make the connection.  The line right after, Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme, so captured my attention with its insight and universality that I missed the specifics.

"Cheating Hearts" and "Crazy Arms" and Crying Time" are all titles of songs from the era he's hankering back to, the titles of the songs on the jukebox.  Just brilliant.

In the song, the Old Guard sit and shoot the shit and listen to some old George Jones, or maybe some Dolly or Waylon or Price.  A younger crowd, the Young Guard perhaps, comes in. Then some kids they start playin' their fast modern tunes / And the floor bounces when they dance around the room.  But one of the old dudes says he's had enough and 

He starts punching in the numbers of the ones we feel
Those old heart-breakin' melodies with cryin' steel
The young ones start leaving, it's too slow and hard
But they'll be back when it's their turn to join the guard



 "... a carousel of horse and wood."

It's time to get going, time to leave my new, old friends.  Slaid has something else to tell me, but it's personal, not the stuff for crowds.

Sometimes it's the shape of a song, the structure of the thing, that captures my attention.  "So Good to Me" has verses, what appears to be a chorus, and what seems like a couple of bridges.  It's starts all jangly and open, and then it saddens,  The harmonies are different, the mood changes... and then it comes back around and then somehow mixes the two and fades.

This song sounds to me like the wedding renewal vows of a really cool dude to his extraordinary wife.

With the world so cold outside
You'd be always on my side
If I stumbled blindly you could make me see
Through thick and thin you stayed
All through my darkest days
How could you possibly be so good to me

A long relationship is often a cyclical and seasonal, and he lays that out so honestly, heart wide open.

Times were tough but we were tougher
Slings and arrows we did suffer
Scars, we've got a few, but who has not
Words of love and words of anger
Times of peace and times of danger
Never take for granted what we've got

Yeah, that about covers it, doesn't it?

Men - well, the kind of men I like and respect - apologize in whispers and love quietly.  Slaid does that in "To Be Held."  It's a private song with haunting harmonies and floating guitar, and it is aimed directly at not me.  But there it is, on an album, it must be for me as well.  And... it is.  Why?

You're not asking for diamonds
You don't want furs
You don't dream of silver and gold
All you're asking is to be cherished
To be held and to hold

I needed to hear that.

And this.

I walk around blindly
I bumble along
In my heart I know that I'm wrong
It's a cold consolation:
I'm sorry again
One more time the same story told
And all that you want is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold

It is easy to let this all fall into an apologetic hug, but I think it is more.  I hold my sons and my wife and my family inside me.  When you hold someone, even those miles or lifetimes away, you regard them, you honor them, you raise them up and show them about in wonder and thanksgiving.  And, of course, the inverse is true.  When we know we are being held, we feel lifted, sacred.  Sunsets are prettier, stars are brighter, greens greener, happiness, well, happier.

Holding is the hard work love asks of us.  It is Hope.

To be held is Hope's reward.  It is Grace.

I suspect there is more to "Still Be Mine" than I know.  I'm cool with that, I'm not sure what most of the music in the seventies was about.  Sometimes a mood or phrase or piano riff can be enough.  Perhaps a certain phrase wallops you upside the head, say, like...

I won't ask more questions
I'm old enough to know there is no remedy
Could I ask one favor:
Would you try to hold on to what's left of me?
Forget the rest of me, and all you thought I'd be

Am I sure what this means?  No, not at all, but I know what it's like to hope that someone is willing to "try to hold on to what's left of me."  We all need and deserve that.

"Junkyard" is just a simple song, a plaintive fingered guitar, an easy melody, but it equals, somehow, the whole of the rest of the album.  He's opened the album with upbeat waves breaking like young love on the shoreline and closes it with one last trip to the junkyard.  It's been a journey, but it ain't over, it'll circle back.

I choked back a sob the first time I heard this tune.  Not just because it hurt me, but because it lifted me.

Oh, I'm headed out to the junkyard
On the lonely side of town
This time it's a one way trip boys
I won't be coming back round

And it's one last time to the junkyard
I've swapped out my share of parts
From fenders and alternators
To shoulders, knees and hearts

The doctors and the mechanics
Have done all they can do
With hammer, wrench and scalpel
Ball joint, valve and screw

It's time to throw in the towel
Some breakdowns you cannot mend
Like all that have come before us
We all must face the end

So I'm limping back to the junkyard
In cloud of smoke and dust
I won't be driving out this time
Gonna lay me down to rust

Gonna leave this old shell behind now
Set our spirits free
Gonna walk on out to glory
Sun setting down on me

I've pulled my own parts at the junkyard on the lonely side of town... it's still there, way out in Cleves, which is a nice poetic twist, I think.  I've had scalpels cut me wide.  I've felt like I'm "Gonna lay me down to rust" and "walk on out to glory."  Truly, sometimes it's hard not to feel done...  especially as you feel that dust and rust and wear and tear of age.  Man, I get what he's laying down here.

And, that's what lifts me, knowing another human, another man, another brother, a dude I like and respect, feels the same way... it helps.  I think Slaid knows that, I think he's known it all along.  So many of the songs in this collection could seem sad, even bitter, but they don't.  Everyone's gonna be alright; endings will begin; beginnings always end.

All through this album I've felt spun, gently, as in a quiet eddy.  I've started here, gone way over there, and ended back here.  I walked a timeline that seems to constantly fall into itself.  I've loved through heartbreak, hoped through through breakdown, I've celebrated through sorrow.

And... that's a good thing.

It's impossible to fathom how many kinds of wrong I probably am in my assessment of this album.  And yet, I'm gonna plow on.  Themes of passing time, long relationships, bittersweet memories, aging and restoration run through it all, but...  am I allowed to even do that, tell you his themes?  Maybe not, and maybe that makes things easier.

I can tell you that I heard those themes.  I can tell you that this album lingered and echoed in my head long after my little Bose speaker ran out of juice.  I can tell you that I needed to meet these people, hear their songs, celebrate their stories.  I can tell you I needed to think about time and seasons and circles and such.

Finally, I needed to think about redemption.  I used the word restoration a bit ago because I thought it was clever and hearkened back to old '74's and junkyards and shoulders - but, I meant redemption.  Redemption is restorative.  I said once in this post that "It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song."

I want to thank Slaid Cleves for singing his to me.

And (if in my mind only), that circles me back to where I started - you remember, feeling guilty about how I behave as a music listener.  I feel like I don't support my favorite artists in a way that leads to their financial success.  He doesn't tour close to here in the near future.  I suppose I could buy a shirt or something, or just send him a twenty.  But I don't need an album or a CD or a digital download - although I would, actually, really dig a shirt.  I like listening to him on Spotify.  It's easy and simple and affordable.  I'm glad there are videos of him on YouTube and the like.

So, what's a guy to do?  Well, I wrote this exceedingly long post in a way to offer my support in another way.  I want him to know he touched me, and I want you to know why.  I suspect he already does.  You don't write songs like these and not know you're going to move folks.  I wanted him to know that he reminded me what a great medium that old-fashioned, set aside, album/record/LP was... is.  He brought back old friends and good times and broken hearts and bright yesterdays.  I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do.

I owe ya, dude.

You know, when I was a kid we'd actually carry albums around.  You might take the newest Stones or John Denver over to you friends house or carry a stack of good dance music or rock-n-roll to a party over off Court street.  Your girl, or that glam rocker from second period math, might make you suffer through something you didn't like.  We'd all poor over the liner notes and cover art like it was scripture.  We were compelled to both share it with others and hold it in our own hands...  that's what I've tried to do here.

To be held and to hold...

Thanks for staying around.  It was fun.  Stop by when you can, I'm learnin' a couple more...


(I don't usually add anything to a post after I've published it, short of a blatant spelling or grammatical errors, I usually just leave it, but something happened that I think merits attention.)

I wrote above of the artist/audience relationship and said:  "I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do."

I wrote a note to Slaid on his website, he's got an "Ask Slaid"  widget and just told him a wrote about his album.  Well he took the time to do two things, first he responded positively to what I laid down, which I thought was damn decent of him,  

"Goddamn, Bill, that might be my favorite review of all time. Nail on the head. You do a lovely job expressing the effect the music has on you; no need to apologize for lack of professional training or anything like that. (And you'd be surprised how many published reviews misquote the lyrics.) Thanks for letting me know that I'm doing the job I set out to do."

... the job he set out to do, that really touched me because he got what I was trying to do.

He also did what I think any of the characters in his songs would do, made sure to thank and acknowledge the folks that made this all happen.

"One caveat: I had a lot of help in writing and producing this album. Co-writers Rod Picott, Nathan Hamilton, Karen Poston, Mike Morgan, Jeff Elliott, Graham Weber, with Scrappy Jud Newcomb producing."

Seems like just the thing Butch and Evelyn's boy would do... 

Slaid Cleaves is the real deal, friends; he's honest and real and earthy and decent and right.  I wish he lived next door, and had a nice porch...

Peace, again.


  1. I had heard some of these before but not all. He is good at what he does. Thanks for posting. You do it well.

  2. Great read Bill. Saw Slaid recently in the UK and bought this CD, which I have played many times now. Your assessments and interpretations of the songs very much tally with my own. The characters and places in the songs may be very much southern USA but the themes and sentiments are universal.