Cleaves, who will turn 40 in June, is gearing up for a tour behind his latest album, "Wishbones" (Rounder), a crisp-sounding collection of songs that the singer-songwriter says came together through storytelling.
Most of the songs "are stories," he says, "things I have read about or heard about secondhand or firsthand. Some are just made up."
The album boasts an impressive collection. The title track offers what sounds like an impressionistic view of barroom life. "Spin the bottle cap/Throw a shot back" urges the chorus.
But perhaps something darker is going on?
"That one's not a story," says Cleaves in a phone interview. "It's more impressionistic, a little less direct than most of my writing. I usually have one song like that on each record. It's a little more pop, and it's a little more mysterious."
Other selections, like "Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues" or "Drinkin' Days" get the toes tapping and the brain gears moving all at the same time.
For Cleaves, the stories behind can be just as interesting as the tunes themselves.
"'Quick As Dreams' I got out of the book about Seabiscuit. It was inspiring. I love that book. One chapter in the book was about how tough it was to be a jockey. That's what that was about. 'Horses' I wrote after a conversation with a wacky friend. 'New Year's Day' was a eulogy for a friend who passed away."
"Wishbones" continues Cleaves' collaboration with Gurf Morlix, the guitarist/producer many fans associate with some of Lucinda Williams' best discs.
But for this disc, the musician was hoping to up the ante.
"I was really, really proud of 'Broke Down,' proud of that record. I feel it really came out as good as I had hoped. The question is: What do you do next? What 'Broke Down' was lacking was sort of a groove. It was very folky, and I had been playing with a lot of band configurations. I thought it might be fun to do something a little more band-oriented and a little more groove-oriented," he says. Most of the songs, it turns out, "seemed they would in on more of a band arrangement."
And so Cleaves entered the studio.
His recent touring helped him have more of a try-it-and-see bent. "My band changes from week to week. I have kind of a rotating band, based on budget and availability and region," says Cleaves, who grew up in Maine. "I have this great stable of musicians. As we started these songs, we just went song by song, and I said, 'What would sound good on this?' A lot of these songs were brand spanking new. We were still tweaking lyrics and experimenting. Usually, the songs are a little bit honed. A few of these are really fresh."
Who influences his style?
"Springsteen was a huge influence in high school. That's sort of dramatic storytelling and dramatic changes and populist ideas that have always infused me. People who are smart enough to know they are losing, but too dumb to quit. Most of my songs could be summed up by that," he says.
Springsteen's "Nebraska" was a "huge influence," says Cleaves, and prompted him to rediscover Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie
Cleaves says he also enjoys Tom Waits and finds the artist's songs bear up to repeated listening.
For Cleaves, time to write seems very precious. "I need to be totally excluded and apart from everything. That's the only way I've been able to write for the last two years," he says.
"I can't do it at the house. There are too many distractions. I found a cabin my friend loaned me...Each record I have to use a different trick to get myself to write. I used to write at a state park, and I used to write at home, and I used to write in the cabin. I don't know what I'll do next, maybe get out of town and go somewhere I've never been before."
The new album marks just the latest step in a career marked by striving. "Music has been in my life since I was old enough to use a record player," Cleaves says. "My parents were great lovers of music and had a great record collection - everything from Hank Williams to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles and Woody Guthrie. I was just exposed to this early on, had a garage band in high school and a new wave band in college."
He did his share of busking in the street and formed an "alt.-country" band in Portland, Maine.
Eventually, he says, "it was time to go to some big music town and get discovered."
Cleaves hit Austin, Texas, in 1991, "and eight years later, I was discovered," he says, jokingly. It didn't come easy. Cleaves "worked in the trenches. I went back to busking in the street, went to open mikes, begged for opening gigs, entered contests."
He got a record deal in 1996, and had a "huge stroke of luck - I got to hook up with Gurf Morlix with my first record." He chalks his current success up to lots of hard work.
"Years of early failure just made me work harder and harder on my craft," he recalls.
Still, a degree of success doesn't mean tough times are over.
After "Broke Down" gained recognition, Cleaves had to bear down for some fairly long stretches of touring and promotion. He has learned some lessons from earlier effort, which will help him when he goes back out on the road.
"It's going to be really hectic," he says. "I switched booking agents a few months ago. I got a manager, like a full-time manager for the first time. He's working his butt off. My wife works for me now, and I've got bands lined up. I've got a huge tour lined up - Texas in March and the Northeast in April and the West Coast in May, back to the Northeast in June, then Europe in July. Festivals through the summer."
"It's the calm before the storm right now. I'm putting a new engine in my van to get ready for the tour and resting up. It's all going to hit the fan in about three weeks."
Hmmm...a man who writes to travel, but then can't write when he hits the road....Well, it sounds like the kind of story that might have a place on his next record.