Slaid Cleaves Offers Perspective On What Music Is All About

November 5, 2013 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  53 Comments

This is a guest post from Austin-based singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Slaid recently was featured on Saving Country Music after making some critical comments about modern country music in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, and he wanted an opportunity to elaborate on his statements. Slaid’s latest album, the critically-acclaimed “Still Fighting The War” was released in June.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Photo by Karen Cleaves

Photo by Karen Cleaves

I’m a lucky bastard.  Driving out of Austin to my home in Wimberley on a Friday afternoon, I don’t curse the horrendous traffic, because this is what I hear on the radio on my way home:  It starts on KDRP with some 1990s Steve Earle, new music from local writer Nathan Hamilton, and then Virginia’s Scott Miller, followed by the latest Mark Knopfler (Privateering – coolest six and half minute song I’ve heard in a long time) and then Hank Williams’ Honky Tonk Blues (which sounded clear and punchy and vital, like it was recorded yesterday down at Gruene Hall).  As the signal fades out in the low water crossings of Driftwood I switch over to KNBT coming up out of New Braunfels and catch the intro to my own Still Fighting the War (which I had help in writing from my friend and neighbor, Wranglin’ Ron Coy) followed by the (real, live) DJ back-announcing Lyle Lovett, John Prine and Kevin Fowler.  Coming up after the break: Sonny Landreth, Tift Merritt and Adam Hood.  Pulling into my driveway I was tempted to sit in the car and listen, but dinner was waiting.  (BTW, even the commercial breaks on stations like KNBT tend to be pretty easy to take.  They are mostly locally produced ads for local businesses, relevant to the community and tastefully done.)

I’m not exposed to Nashville country music very often.  But when I come across it I have a visceral negative reaction to it.  It seems like a false picture of life.  It doesn’t resonate with me at all.  I don’t know, maybe there are places where there are dudes in $100 designer jeans driving brand new $40,000 pickup trucks, constantly surrounded by partying swimsuit models, all trying to out-redneck each other.  But that’s not a world I’m familiar with, and when I see it on TV it just seems fake to me.  The vocals and music itself are so overproduced and smoothed over and glossy, like it’s been run through a bunch of computers and focus groups.  I predict someday Chinese engineers will discover the algorithm for Nashville country music and begin mass producing hits from a computer in Shinzen.

Sorry, I’m ranting.  Judging from the comments following the posting of a portion of my recent Chicago Sun Times interview, I’m preaching to the converted.  But in the end, what’s the use in talking about music we don’t like?  The fact is: lots of people like this stuff.  Lots of people go to Kenny Chesney shows.  I don’t understand why.  And those people probably don’t see what I see in Adam Carroll.  It’s like two different tribes, and each is seeking a different experience.  I wouldn’t pay a dollar to see Kenny Chesney or any other Nashville star.  Likewise, a Kenny Chesney fan would have no fun at all at one of my “listening room” gigs.

And no, it doesn’t matter that Clear Channel plays Chesney and not me.  My music doesn’t translate in a mass market situation.  Can you picture me singing in a hockey arena?  My kind of music works in the little local music club and on the community radio station where people present only the music they are passionate about, and the audience fits into a room that’s smaller than Keith Urban’s drum riser.  My music works for people who want a more intimate connection to music, and are more interested in the subtleties of songwriting and the depth of storytelling you can find only in the “artisanal” country music being made today.

There’s no reason to despair.  There’s an embarrassment of riches to be found on the edges of commercial music today.  And even if you live in a “food desert,” where there’s nothing but Piggly Wiggly and Clearchannel radio, you have no excuse.  Because dozens of great, locally programmed radio stations across the country are available online and even via smartphone apps.  Sure it takes a little extra effort, just like ordering a chicken breast sandwich (which is not boneless) at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville takes a bit more effort that ordering a dozen McNuggets at the drive-thru.  If you like Nashville country music, all you gotta do is spin the radio dial till you hear people hitting the “redneck” buzzwords of the day.  But if you want to hear a song you’d actually care to hear more than once, one that will sound as good 10 years from now as it does today, a song made by independent artists working hard to make a decent living, artists making music for the people of their community, you need to put a little extra effort into it.  Download an app.  Sign up for a mailing list.  Share your new find with friends.  Go to a show at the local club.  Stop talking about the music you don’t like, and talk about the music that does make your heart race or your throat choke up or makes you want to sit in the car and keep listening in the driveway.

If you haven’t done so lately, put a Kitty Wells LP on the turntable, or a Hank Williams 78 on the old Victrola.  Or seek out Robbie Fulks’ brand new release, Gone Away Backward.  It’s worth the extra effort.  You’ll hear a fellow human voice, imperfect and glorious, singing in a room, accompanied by the sounds of wood and gut string and enhanced only by some little coils of copper wire.  You might hear a story that resonates with your very own.  And that’s what it’s all about.

53 Comments to “Slaid Cleaves Offers Perspective On What Music Is All About”

  • Excellent article! Those last two paragraphs are pure gold.

  • Amen Brother Slaid. Well said !

  • I’m not gonna lie. That was so well-put that I almost shed a tear. Thank you, Slaid.

  • I agree with the general premise of talking about music you like as opposed to what you don’t like. I just bitch because some of these “artists” used to play music that I like to listen to. It’s gotten to the point that I cannot listen to country radio at all, a relatively recent development.

    • This whole thread of “Should we waste time criticizing bad music?” comes up all the time here at Saving Country Music, and is something I openly struggle with. Without question, the majority of the focus should always be to help discover and support the music that is worthy of people’s ears, but I can’t tell you how many hundreds, if not thousands of people have been turned onto independent music through this site alone simply because I had something negative to say about bad music. It is the single most useful tool to illuminating music consumers to the fact that they have a choice, and like Slaid said, that there’s an amazing amount of heartfelt, independent music out there just waiting to be discovered. Simply put, criticizing bad music creates more fans, and more support for music that deserves it, and erodes the stranglehold corporate music has on the music industry.

      Tomorrow is the CMA Awards, and every year, this is the single biggest event to drive interest and awareness of what is going on in country music. As millions of people watch on in amazement at the spectacle, millions will also be watching with sheer horror on their faces of what has happened to country music, and will take to search engines to see if anyone else feels the same way they do, and end up at Saving Country Music, and sites like it. Then they will exposed to the fact they they have choices that they never knew they had. Tomorrow as I cover the CMA Awards, I guarantee I will see numerous comments along the lines of, “If you hate the CMA Awards, why do you watch them?” And the reason is because engaging with them, instead of ignoring them, is the key to converting new fans to the independent, artistic side of country music. It is an opportunity that is irresponsible to not take advantage of.

      I wrote more extensively about this subject a while back:

      I’m not trying to erode Slaid’s comments whatsoever. I agree with them and thought they were poignant and wise. I think his point that wasting time whining about what is bad when there’s so much good stuff out there is something we should all heed.

      • This is exactly what brought me to this site in the first place. Looking for some explanation for the complete degradation of the genre. Since then I’ve been turned onto Sturgill Simpson, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, Jason Isbell, et al.

        Was already a fan of Townes, Coe, Waylon and the like, but pointing viewers such as myself toward modern day singer-songwriters is one of the great strengths of this site.

      • Shit, I came here while I was trying to figure out if “Outlaw You” was a shot at Eric Church. After my initial rage subsided I became enlightened as to the wealth of good music out there. My festering resentment at the state of country (ca 2011, no less) finally had an outlet. Trig, I salute you for your efforts, and thank you for the brilliant recommendations.

        The only damn shame is that 95% of these bands don’t come up to Western Mass very often and I ain’t about to move to Texas any time soon.

        • Yes, “Outlaw You” was directed at Eric Church.

  • That was most excellent–he nailed it; darn songwriters and their way with words…

  • Man, I am not surprised Slaid’s eloquence but always impressed. My sentiments exactly. I wrote a whole book on 100 of Austin’s lesser known talented giants hoping to give them a bit more spotlight and Slaid summed up really what it’s all about in this brief article. Thanks Slaid. Glad you are here.

  • Truer words (without the usual country bashing) have rarely been said. Living in Nashville for four years, I regularly tuned in to “Ten@Ten” in KNBT online because I not only missed my “tribe,” but could rarely hear Nashville songwriters like Will Hoge or Sean McConnell there, yet they rank high on the Texas charts. Now back in the Austin area, I celebrate being home and my first way to give grace was to attend KNBT’s Americana Fest in Gruene and bathed in the sounds of Slaid et al.

  • This was a great read – thank you.

    I would love some input from anyone on some good stations that do stream live via a smartphone app. I have installed the KDRP app…would love to know of others.

    • The station Slaid mentions in his article, KNBT, streams via apps for both iPhone and Android per their website, I am listening to it on my computer (in the Midwest) while I type this.

      • I second this. KNBT is a fantastic station, but do know it’s Americana rather than country, so you are just as likely to hear Alabama Shakes as you are Adam Hood. (They also play a rather scarily impressive Etta James cover of “Welcome to the Jungle” on a fairly regular basis.)

        And I’ll admit it did me good to see someone else is appreciative of that station’s commercials. I was starting to wonder if I was weird to enjoy them. (I’m lucky I’m about 20 minutes away from New Braunfels.)

    • The Range out of Dallas is a great station for TX/Red Dirt americana and classic country.

  • I just want to add something that I think most or all of you already know.
    Slaid is one of the best songwriters there is.

  • Spot on!

  • And don’t use the I Heart Radio app and expect anything but mainstream country. It’s owned by Clear Channel and features exclusively the non-adventurous programming of only Clear Channel stations.

  • Well said…you nailed it with the algorithm line. Every so often I try to listen to popular country music and get reminded why I hate it so much. There are some things to appreciate, such as some incredible musicianship (if we can assume it isn’t being created by a computer) but overall it is crap.

  • You tell ‘em cuz! I just wish we had more opportunity to see you and your music live here in South Florida.

    I typically listen to a grand wide variety of music and will change it up in one sitting. What is funny (funny ironic not haha) is that no matter where I am, most people take exception with something I am playing, whether it be my cousin Slaid here, Etta James, a trop rock artist like Eric Stone, Santana, Second Imij (caribbean soca), Robert Palmer, or the Rolling Stones.

    While I am typically am drawn to good song writing and great musical talent, the “pop” music world, whether it be popular country, popular hip hop, or some current “pop”ular music like Katy Perry, help expand and fuel awareness of different forms of music to the masses.

    Compare it to beer, when Slaid and I were growing up in the North East, there wasn’t much more than Budwiser, Miller, Canadian Molson and a few UK and German beers. Then a few small brewerys started. Along came Samual Adams with national distribution. Of course many a beer snob will call Sam Adams over produced “commercial brand”, but it’s national distribution arguably opened the door for the micro brew revolution.

    My point is that perhaps the expanded reach of commerical country pop, may bring a few more music fans over to the side of the true craft singer song writers like Slaid!

    • “My point is that perhaps the expanded reach of commerical country pop, may bring a few more music fans over to the side of the true craft singer song writers like Slaid!”

      I can testify to this being true. This pretty much sums up my musical journey over the last 4 years.

  • Speaking of well written, from the heart music; check out a guy named Jim Yoss. He just dropped an album called “Slow Burn” on I tunes. Or better yet check out his FB page and order the CD. You won’t be disappointed.

  • He’s absolutely correct about putting forth effort to find music that inspires and entertains. You won’t find it on the radio, or even in the bigger dance type clubs. You gotta go look for it. Online, small dive bars, small clubs, listening rooms. But it’s there. And when you stumble on to an artist that blows you away…and the maybe 20 other people in the room, you appreciate it even more.

    That’s how I discovered Slaid Cleaves. He popped up every so often on an online radio station I listen to. So when I went to Bristol Rhythm and Roots and Slaid was there, I made it a point to go see him. And loved every minute. Another great artist discovered.

  • So spot-on that this needs to circulate all around the Internets.

  • A shot , straight to the heart , with the characteristic unerring accuracy of a songwriter’s truth seeking missle .

  • I live in Kansas (from Oklahoma though) and it was hard to find good music up north. I started working at a bar just east of Wichita and turned my owner onto the Red Dirt/Texas sound. That’s all we play now in the bar. Just had Micky and the Motorcars last weekend and we have Brandon Jenkins on the 15th. Its awesome. We do our part in supporting live music. One of the best apps I’ve found is a little radio station in Southeast Kansas, its called “KOTE” in the Google play store for androids. All Red Dirt/Texas music 24/7.

  • Nailed it Slaid!!! That was so well-said that I just had to comment for he sake of wanting to be a part of it.

  • Well done.

  • “There’s an embarrassment of riches to be found on the edges of commercial music today.”

    Truer words could not be spoken.

  • Dear Mr. Cleaves,

    I agree largely with the above position; however, I beg you to remember something equally important;

    YOU have written music that inspires and motivates generations to come. We as your loyal underground will support, talk and share your work as much as we are capable. All we ask is that you continue to write, love, learn and grow like we do with you.

  • Hell I first came on this website to see how you’d slander my favorite pop country artists. And after reading the articles about said artists to see that you weren’t after them this website really is all about perpetuating country music. I wouldn’t know who any of the modern independent artists I now listen to if it weren’t for this website. I recently wrote a song about myself and my relationships and played it for a really close friend of mine and it brought a tear to her eye. and to me that’s what music is. if the artist can bring their message to at least one person that’s all that matters. I appreciate your rants on bad country as much as the next guy. I can no longer hear good music on an fm radio in Bloomington Indiana, which totally sucks its a college town and should be more open to true country music but its just sadly not the case. Keep doing what your doing and maybe someday I will read a positive review of one of my songs on your website

    • “its a college town and should be more open to true country music”

      LOL! In a college town, you should expect the exact opposite. College students are probably less interested in (and less familiar with) traditional country music than any other adult demographic.

  • Excellent stuff! Reading this: “I predict someday Chinese engineers will discover the algorithm for Nashville country music and begin mass producing hits from a computer in Shinzen”, I was a bit confused …. hasn’t that happened already? Sounds like it to me!

  • Great! And I’m happy/proud to say that the roster of artists that Slaid listed in his first couple of paragraphs are regularly played on my radio show on a little community-based station in Cape May, NJ (WCFA-LP) – and I love playing Slaid’s music, too.
    And happy to have found ‘Saving Country Music’, too.

  • Spot on. I had the privilege a few weeks ago to see Sturgill Simpson play in a small bar on a Friday night and Jason Isbell play to a PACKED crowd in a small theater on a Sunday night. And in the three weeks prior to that Jason Boland and Jamey Johnson each came through the area. I had to drive about an hour to see each show but they were all well worth it. Great music is out there for people to hear if they would just take the time to search for it; it’s just too bad it isn’t as accessible as this other stuff.

  • Nashville is ‘back east’ from my roost. I’ve never listened to a Chesney/Aldean song all the way through….I have to turn my radio down or off. I can’t watch any of their videos.

    I can’t stand that weird, pseudo ‘high lonesome’ beach twang. Every now and then, you have to twist off and say what you really feel about those ditties. I’m not alone.

    I notice others walking down the aisles in our stores….sticking their tongues out and rolling their eyes when they meet your glance. We have stores that play these kegger songs, but customers leave as fast as they can.

  • I have been preaching this over 40 years and have decided that the masses are like sheep and only listen to what they are told is good music.Every time I see Florida Georgia Line I throw up a little in my mouth. Keep making great music Slaid, and I will keep listening and spreading the word to the musically impaired.

  • Slaid summarizes the state of country music better than anyone I have previously heard.

    And he has the genuineness and gravitas to comment on the country music horizon.

    He is a great singer-songwriter.

  • The problem I have with all the comments about the state of country music is ‘Who decides what is good country music’? Somebody is buying those supposedly terrible songs and going to see those supposedly shallow acts. Some might say that all the critics of current country music are people that are just jealous that they are not on the successful side of the genre. I think Slaid’s most valuable comment is that we should be talking up and supporting the acts that, in our opinion, are deserving of wider recognition instead of trying to talk down the current state of country music. One of the earlier commenters stated that ‘taste is subjective’ even when applied to what might be called ‘music made to appeal to the masses and be commercially successful’. I think most artists who create music would like their music to be ‘successful’, however you wish define that term. I read a comment somewhere that I’ve tried to take to heart when ever I start to negatively judge songs. ‘There is no such thing as bad art (music), only differing (subjective) opinions’. It helps me realize that there is an audience for all of us.

  • reading this at 6am, and that last paragraph hit home hard. i have to say, spotify is a great source for avoiding dj-selected tunes and exploring the fringes…all full albums…Ive been listening to Blaze Foley alot this week….a writer whom ive known about for years, but never fully appreciated to the degree which others have…then, this week-I was alone in the kitchen, tired and a bit ragged and suddenly brought to tears by “clay pigeons”…when things like that happen, it feels like the song has become part of your life,…its real. –amen, slaid.

    • and just to be clear, when i find a spotify artist i like, i buy their music. its important.

  • Well, I for one would expect (hope for) that on a college station. Surely they could find a time slot for some independent country music.
    Sounds like a good topic for an article: ‘The Top 10 College Radio Stations for Independent Country Music’. (Since we like lists so much ;)
    What do you say, Trig?

    ‘Top 10 Stations Streaming Independent Country Music’, then? Anybody??

    • I’d be very interested to see this list also. I listen to UPenn’s public radio station frequently. Plays some great americana, folk, etc.. but never traditional country, unfortunately.

    • Maybe we’ll get to work on that. The site used to have a “radio” page where we had cool radio stations you could listen to online in one place. But the problem was the changeover was so great, it went out-of-date so quickly. There’s probably a lot more stability in college stations though.

    • I still don’t see how it would be financially wise to play classic-style country music for an audience that has virtually no interest in it.

  • I do a radio show in Eastern Maine, Slaid’s old territory. I remember hearing him when he was still around here, and thought his sensiblity , taste, and style set him apart right at the get-go from the endless parade of self-absorbed singer-songwriters who basically can’t sing or write songs, but they do it anyway. Though never firmly in the classic country music camp, Slaid has always had that influence, and it shows in a genuine way. As a radio programmer, I’m bombarded on a daily basis with one “Americana” ( a term that has been rendered practically meaningless from overuse) CD after another, and it’s a lot to sift through. About one out of 20 CDs perks my ears, and the others are pretty tepid, faux-hipster stuff. I think the same is true for folks trying to sort out what comes out of Nashville, but it’s a more ironclad marketing machine there in the top 40 so-called “country” world, and sets that world apart from what’s happening in places like Austin. All in all, I think Slaid’s comments are pretty accurate, not condemning in any way, and ultimately challenge the listener to , well, Iisten! HIs mention of the new Robbie Fulks CD is right on the money. That’s probably the most listenable recording to come out of this Third Wave of country music in ten years.

  • i dunno…seems like Slaid is underestimating audiences who willfully expose themselves to new country while underselling his abilities as a songwriter capable of appealing to the masses. sounds kinda like a snob, no?

    this is the most tame perspective a performer like Slaid could take. what’s his point – he really likes his own scene? wow, shocker. he doesn’t care for what passes for country music these days? that’s about as unique an opinion as what passes for country music these days. please.

    why doesn’t his audience actually hold him to a higher standard of social critique rather than applaud him for finding problems with that, at best, lie barely beneath the surface of pop culture?


  • Angus Austin Sez Eyed Rathur Bee Uh Steer N Texas Dan Duh King Of Tennessee…and that ain’t No Bull! Lizzen here–>

  • Standing up and clapping, here!

  • […] and smoothed over and glossy, like it’s been run through a bunch of computers and focus groups. ● – – Slaid Cleaves, in a guest post on Saving Country Music. Very […]

  • […] If you read anything today, make it be this.  […]

  • I agree with most of what is said in the article. I have liked many of the current country music mega stars before they were stars. Once the corporate money making machine gets going, they get groomed and polished and become unrecognizeable.Sad. You can’t blame them for wanting to make some cash but it all comes down to selling out to the formula for mass marketing.

  • Well, just like the music to which Slaid refers, this article was well worth the extra effort in finding. Hoorah and Amen to all of it! I live in DFW and there is a station here, 95.9 The Ranch that is the closest thing to the stations Slaid describes that I’ve found here and God Bless ‘em for it. They’ve introduced me to great acts like Turpike Troubadors, Eleven Hundred Springs and Whiskey Meyers (just to name a scant few) and bless me with songs from long time faves like Slaid, The GREAT Ray Wylie and even The Derailers.
    There are only two points to which I’d debate with Slaid. One, I would pay money for a big time Nashville act every now and then, cuz it’s like going to a touring broadway show – nothing real, just fun. and 2. I think Slaid’s music is perfect any and everywhere. I get his point, but I’d sit in the backrow of any enormodome in the world and listen to One Good Year, Flower Dresses, Drinkin Days, Horseshoe Lounge and…

Leave a comment

Del Maguey
Old Soul Radio Show
Hillgrass Bluebilly
Best Of Lists