Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away
Once upon a time, children, back in the happy olden days when Americans’ choice of music was a little more diverse than it is now, there was a wonderful program called Rogue Calls on XM Cross-Country, a radio station that played country music by men and women who did not, by and large, wear cowboy hats. The format was as simple as the motto: “You request, we decide.” People would call in from all over the country, usually on skeezie old cell phones, asking for songs by fabulous performers that mainstream country-music radio never heard of: James McMurtry, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Gurf Morlix (who, it so happens, co-produced the album you’re now holding in your lucky little hand), Rosie Flores, also known as the Rockabilly Filly.
I listened to Rogue Calls without fail, and one day some trucker with a southern accent as thick as Alabama chicken-dirt called in and asked if he could hear “that quittin’-drinkin’ song.” That song, of course, was “Drinkin’ Days,” by Slaid Cleaves, and it went into me like a bolt of dry lightning. Some of it was how the subject-matter was treated (unflinching and unsentimental—no fake Nashville tears here), but a lot of it had to do with the singer’s calm, dusty/sweet voice. I thought it was the voice of a real American troubadour, and when I got home, I made checking Slaid Cleaves out on the Internet my first priority.
I bought the album—Wishbones—the next day, and was astounded to find there was not a single bad track on it. I also discovered he was from South Berwick, Maine, the town I was living in when I wrote Stand by Me. We were, in other words, homeboys. Nice!
I’m not particularly good when it comes to talking about music, but I know what works for me; what comes across as one hundred per cent authentic. Slaid Cleaves is that thing. He starts in, and something inside the listener speaks up and says, “You’re home.” He can be funny; he can be romantic without being sappy (no mean trick); he can touch your heart with songs like “Cry” and “Temporary;” he can tell stories without lapsing into the rather worn-out poses of American folk music.
His taste is as deft as his touch. As on Wishbones, his breakthrough album, there is not a single bad track or wrongfooted step on Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. From the hardscrabble (but cheerful) verses of “Hard to Believe” to the bluegrass-tinged lament of “Green Mountains and Me” to the harsh, sarcastic—and reluctantly optimistic—lines of “Beautiful Thing,” this is a record that just goddam works, from first to last.
I’m glad I found Slaid Cleaves, because my life would have been poorer without him. You’ll feel the same, I think, when you listen to this beautifully crafted album. Listen, go to one of Slaid’s shows, take a friend, and pass on the news: not all the good guys wear hats.
January 18, 2009