Slaid Cleaves Offers Perspective On What Music Is All About

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.

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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.

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