Album Review – Slaid Cleaves – “Together Through The Dark”
Down in Texas, you have to be damn good if you want to go around telling folks you’re a professional singer/songwriter. It’s not like being in a honky-tonk band, where as long as your rendition of “Hey Baby, Que Paso” is passable, you can land some gigs. As a singer/songwriter, you’re not only competing with contemporaries like Jason Eady and James McMurtry to match songs with, you have the legacies of guys like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to live up to.
Slaid Cleaves has held his own down in Texas for over 30 years, and you commonly see him on the rosters of some of the biggest songwriter festivals in the United States. Similar to Chris Knight, Cleaves had his prolific period and put together a catalog of revered songs where now he doesn’t have to put out an album every other year, and instead can let a little anticipation build, and focus on quality, not quantity.
Cleaves waited six years to release Together Through The Dark, and partners with Scrappy Jud Newcomb as producer for the project. Adam Carroll, Lloyd Maines, Terri Hendrix, and Rod Picott are some of the co-writers Cleaves works with. Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Maine, Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott were childhood friends and bandmates. Cleaves moved to Austin in 1991, and has since become a mainstay of the central Texas songwriter scene.
Together Through The Dark is a tempered and thoughtful mid/late career effort by Cleaves that compliments his tranquil voice and calming disposition … until it isn’t, and he allows the passion for imperative topics to come boiling up into cutting words and perspectives, offering searing stories and commentary on the concerns plaguing the common man.
The opening title track is a simple song about the pairing of lovebirds. The second song “Puncher’s Chance” struggles a bit to capture the aging nostalgia of an old bruiser contemplating his more rowdy years. Together Through The Dark starts off a bit slow, and takes some warming up to. But no matter what time of year it is, the teary-eyed take on small town life Slaid Cleaves captures in the two brilliant minutes of “At Christmastime” immediately reminds you why this man is so revered as a songwriter.
From there, shots of wisdom and the strong evocation of character make this album an intensely compelling listen. The droning refrain and dark mood of “Double Shift Tuesday” accurately depicts the shackle-like nature of workaday drudgery. Similar to “Nature’s Darker Laws” about those so downtrodden they succumb to shamanistic ideology, you almost get a Tom Waits vibe from these songs, complimented by understated, yet smart production and arrangement.
A career criminal named “Arnold Nash,” and a socialite from Dallas turned “Terlingua Chili Queen” give Together Through The Dark a depth of character, and tastes of geography from the tip of the northeast down to the borderlands of Texas. The music is mostly simple folk with unique tones brought to each track, along with some solo acoustic songs. But “Terlingua Chili Queen” kicks it up a notch into old school country rock.
One of the reasons the music from Texas has risen in stature compared to music from other regions is due to the standards the state’s songwriters set for everyone else, and the inspiration they sow in their peers. When Slaid Cleaves writes a song, it requires everyone else to step up their game because of the quality of the words and the wisdom of perspective they bring. Together Through The Dark adds a few more of those songs to the Slaid Cleaves catalog.
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May 8, 2023 @ 9:00 am
When Terlingua Chili Queen came on I had to go find my phone to see if I was still listening to Slaid Cleaves.
It’s a great song, but I’ve never heard him kick all the way over into rock that way.
May 8, 2023 @ 10:27 am
I have his CD’s “Broke Down” and “Everything You Love…”
He has great stories, up there with Chris Knight and REK.
Glad that he’s back. I hope this new one finds an audience.
May 8, 2023 @ 5:48 pm
From his Broke Down album one of the best story songs ever “Breakfast in Hell” is just great storytelling and I agree puts him in good company with Chris Knight and REK.
May 8, 2023 @ 8:00 pm
Agreed. “Breakfast in Hell” randomly came on my playlist years ago and caused me to do a deep dive into his catalog. It’s such a great song
May 8, 2023 @ 11:35 am
Who created the artwork for the album cover?
Finding it a bit captivating.
Liking the soaring spirit of it.
Bigfoot is Real
May 8, 2023 @ 3:46 pm
Note: Augie Myers and Bill Sheffield wrote Hey Baby Que Paso not Doug Sahm.
May 8, 2023 @ 5:02 pm
I don’t remember saying Doug Sahm wrote it, but thanks for the clarification.
I’m just happy to see Bigfoot is Real back in the comments section.
May 11, 2023 @ 7:26 pm
Wait, is the reference in the review to Doug “Sham” a typo or criticism?
May 11, 2023 @ 7:53 pm
Looks like an autocorrect. It’s fixed.
May 14, 2023 @ 4:34 pm
Hey Trigger, the point is, it’s actually Augie Meyer’s “Hey Baby Que Paso” not, Doug Sahm’s at all.
Augie was the singer, too. Him and Doug kinda sound alike when they sing, so it’s frequently attributed to Doug. It’s famous from out of the Texas Tornados, which they both were in, but it is Augie all the way, and I bet the other commenter wanted to give him proper credit, as Doug was. Without stating it as clearly as this. Now ya know.
Doug does do background vocals on this one, (w Freddy F.), and Doug plays Bajo Sexto on it too.
May 14, 2023 @ 5:20 pm
And the point of this article is Slaid Cleaves, not Doug Sahm, Augie Myers, or “Hey Baby, Que Paso.”
I took out all attribution to the song. If I had attributed it to Augie Myers, folks would complain I wasn’t attributing it to Doug Sahm, who definitely performed it solo, and it was part of his live repertoire beyond the Texas Tornados.
May 15, 2023 @ 9:22 am
How odd you and other human’s memory and determination not to be wrong is. No, Doug Sahm, did not definitely perform it solo. You just said that because it’s what you already believe. But it’s not so. Go try and find a Doug Sahm version. Gosh, someone gives a measured explanation of who this song belongs to who the credit goes to, and you fight back. Unproductive and ego-driven.
May 15, 2023 @ 12:41 pm
I apologize. It was not my intent to come across as combative or egotistical. The attribution to the song has been dropped. My frustration is that this is what the discussion on this article is about as opposed to the music of Slaid Cleaves. It was simply an anecdote attempting to portray how top shelf the songwriting talent in Central Texas is.
May 10, 2023 @ 6:54 am
Maines shows up all over the place from Jerry Jeff Walker Live at Gruene Hall to writing for these songs. That dude outta write a book about Texas music and his experiences what a read that would be.
May 11, 2023 @ 6:16 am
Thanks for the review on this one, Trig. Been listening to this one since it came out and it keeps getting more rotation. Kind of a slow burner for me.