By the time Cleaves hit his 20's, he knew where his future lay. Ten years later, he has just released his second album on Philo Records, "Broke Down."
Though he has been in Austin for most of the past decade, Cleaves grew up in Portland, Maine listening to his father's recordings of the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers.
"I did a bit of garage band stuff in high school," Cleaves recalls. "I didn't write anything until I got into college and started learning how to play guitar and learning how to write songs."
Cleaves began to seriously pursue his musical career in his 20's and says that he "totally gave up any day job aspirations when I was about 25, so I've been doing it since then."
"Early on my songwriting was more based on what happened to me or characters that I met," says Cleaves, 35. "My life is becoming more settled as I get older, and I'm not living as many big adventures or hanging out with shady characters these days, so I guess I have to be a little more imaginative."
After putting out a few self-released recordings Cleaves was determined to secure a record deal for another collection of songs, "No Angel Knows." When Rounder Records head Ken Irwin was visiting some friends in Austin, he asked them to let him know about any new artists in town. Irwin was introduced to Cleaves.
Later when Cleaves sent out demo tapes to a few labels, it was Irwin who called him and signed him to Philo, a subsidiary of Rounder.
In 1997, Cleaves' "No Angel Knows" was highly praised and spent several weeks high up on the Americana chart. With his latest album, "Broke Down," Cleaves should further establish his reputation as one of the best country/folk singer/songwriters around.
As on his debut, Cleaves chose guitarist Gurf Morlix (formerly with Lucinda Williams) to produce. The title track was inspired by the recent divorce of co-writer Rod Picott, who had been in Cleaves' first garage band in Maine.
"There's a lot of his life in that song," says Cleaves.
"One Good Year" is what Cleaves describes as "a little bit desparate, but still hopeful. That's kind of been a theme of mine on my last couple of records - defiant hopelessness, defiant failure."
On "Cold and Lonely" the influence of Hank Williams is in evidence. "I was getting really distracted and frustrated, and I couldn't write with the phone, the fax, t.v., the computer," says Cleaves, who got away for a few days on an old farm house of a friend. "I sat on a chair looking out the window at the cold, lonely landscape there and channeled the ghosts of the old farm there somehow."
In "Key Chain" Cleaves manages to turn what appears to be a song of loss to a feel-good song of liberation. "I wrote that one about 10 years ago when I sort of gave up on the day job, broke up with a gal and lived out of my car for a little while. I started playing on the street a lot. I kind of like the combination of nothing to lose and freedom."
On "This Morning I Am Born Again," Cleaves brings to life a previoulsy unrecorded Woody Guthrie song. "I was invited to play at a Woody Guthrie tribute in Austin when I first got down here in '92. I thought I'd be a wise guy and play a Woody song no one had ever heard before."
Cleaves found the song in the book "Pastures Of Plenty," which featured many other unreleased Guthrie works. When Guthrie's daughter, Nora, took over management of her father's work, she saw the value in having other musicians finish what he had begun. In addition to Cleaves' recording Guthrie authorized the Wilco/Billy Bragg album of Guthrie compositions.
"My favorite part is that I actually got credit for the music so it's a song written by Slaid Cleaves and Woody Guthrie," says Cleaves. "I smile every time I say it."
The closing track is a remake of Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Moving In." Cleaves was unfamiliar with McCoury until he saw him perform the song on a TNN program, but he was immediately hooked.
Cleaves' version was actually recorded about three years ago by Cool Beans!, a Cleaves side project trio lineup with Laura Nadeau and Janek Siegele. "I was one song short, so I decided to put it on so people could hear it because I really love the way it came out."
After spending most of last year working on "Broke Down," Cleaves is anxious to get back out on the road. "I just kind of holed up and played locally all year. But this year, man, I'm going to tour like I've never toured before."