Still Fighting the War
Americana’s best kept secret steps out of the shadows
I first heard Slaid Cleaves in 2000, when his song Horseshoe Lounge appeared on a Various Artists CD given away with a UK magazine. Within a week I’d bought his whole back catalogue and have been a fan and cheerleader ever since.
Why he’s not feted by weightier organs than this, I don’t know and, I suspect, nor does he. Cleaves writes blue-collar songs about the people around him, scenarios he sees played out in bars and racetracks and, when the mood takes him, love – fulfilled, unrequited and broken. At times he has also written and interpreted some of the finest contemporary Folk songs I’ve heard. Yet, 99% of the people reading this review won’t have heard of him.
As with all singer-songwriters, Cleaves’ albums normally have a few good/great songs on but also include a couple of clunkers. STILL FIGHTING THE WAR starts with a career high and stays at that level until the fade-out 43 minutes later. If you haven’t already heard the album opener and title track, STILL FIGHTING THE WAR, you can buy the download on his website with all proceeds going to a an ex-Serviceman’s charity. I urge you to do so now, even before you finish reading the sentence…go on. Do it now.
In the last 10 years I must have heard 100 songs dealing with a War/anti-War central theme – some from the great and the good and others by songwriters who have been touched by events in one way or another. But, no one has captured the feelings of a returning serviceman quite as well as Cleaves does with his distressing tale of someone with no visible scars, but who is Still Fighting The War everyday and every hour in his head.
The co-write with Rod Picott, Rust Belt Fields, is just as powerful, as Slaid takes the place of an honest Working Joe whose job has ‘gone down to Mexico/or off to the Chinese’ and has a killer line ‘I learned a little something/about the way things are/no one gets a bonus for bloody knuckles and scars.’
The same subject matter and minutiae filters through Welding Burns and Hometown USA with its atmospheric story of broken dreams and hearts. I bet Dylan, Young, and Springsteen wish that they could still write songs like these.
Whim of Iron is the type of character-led song that Slaid Cleaves excels at. In this case, there’s an unnamed woman who appears to have been a force of nature, who stands for office, marries a 92-year-old poet and rallies the town to fix up an old Church.
Like most things in life, music is a very personal thing, with some wordsmith’s touching your heart but others who leave others cold. For me, there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Slaid Cleaves as he has a warm and friendly voice that manages to stay in tune. And, speaking of tunes, he actually knows how to put his words to tunes that have catchy melodies, which is quite a treat these days.
Apart from the title track my other favourite here is Texas Love Song which will not only touch your heart but raise a smile at the same time. He lists all the things he’d do to win his sweetheart over, and I bet you never expected to hear someone offer to ‘trade in his truck for a Lexus’ because he ‘loves her more than Texas!’
I’ll warn the feint-hearted among you that the song ends with a short, sweet yodel. The one that follows it is called Gods Own Yodeller, the story of Don Walser who died recently, and – you guessed it – it features plenty of yodelling.
Slaid Cleaves has always been an excellent interpreter of songs, especially those written by other undiscovered talents in Nashville. But, I’m thrilled to see he had a hand in writing every song on STILL FIGHTING THE WAR and wrote 8 himself, proving what a great songwriter he’s developed into.