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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