There’s a reason Slaid Cleaves hasn’t done an album in four years: For the first time, he had a national touring base; he had to make the rounds and see everyone.
“I was on the road nonstop for like two-and-a-half years,” Cleaves said recently. “Then I thought, ‘Whoa, man, I should start writing some songs.’ One of the songs I wrote was ‘Road Too Long,’ which is kind of obvious. I figured I owed people some explanation for why I was away for so long.”
In 2000, with his second Rounder album, “Broke Down,” the Maine native – now based in Austin – went beyond his cult status. Demands for his playing time finally matched the critical praise he has received since his 1996 debut “No Angel Knows.”
“With the radio play and the mouth-of-word ‘Broke Down’ got, I finally could actually go out there with a couple of guys and a van and come home totally broke,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s kind of like a textbook successful thing, after years and years of failure.”
There’s no telling, Cleaves could receive a Grammy nomination for his long-awaited Philo/Rounder album, “Wishbones” (released March 9; Hear here). Produced by Gurf Morlix (whose own album, “Cut ‘N Shoot,” was issued on April 20), “Wishbones” is solid from top to bottom.
For an example of his elegant lyrics and haunting melodies, queue up “Quick As Dreams.” In Springsteen-esque fashion, Cleaves tells the tale of a retired jockey recalling the death of a young rider early in his career. “60 years ago, boys/ I rode for the Diamond team. Sailing by, eight feet high/ On horses quick as dreams,” Cleaves sings.
Powerful stuff, but Cleaves humbly shrugs off any Grammy talk.
“I don’t think this is a big leap for me artistically,” he said. ” ‘Broke Down’ was a big leap for me. It was way better than anything I had done before. I’m still hoping for that next big leap.”
When piecing together “Wishbones,” the biggest issue for Cleaves was “competing against myself.”
“Like I said, ‘Broke Down’ was a real breakthrough for me, and I worked extremely hard on that record,” he said. “That was the bar I had to top. It kind of hamstrung me for a while. Every song I wrote, I would compare it to songs I had written on ‘Broke Down.’ I’d say, ‘This isn’t as good as something off ‘Broke Down,’ ‘ and then I’d put it aside. My head was stopping and starting when I was writing for this album.
“I had to get beyond that, and what I ended up doing was sequestering myself, getting away from everything. I guess I’m easily distracted. I wasn’t having much luck getting anything done at home. There was the cable TV, the modem, friends drop by, animals to take care of.”
A friend offered him the use of a house about an hour outside Austin. He would go there alone for three days at a time.
“It was a real bucolic setting, no one around,” Cleaves said. “It was just what I needed. Before that, I felt like I wasn’t a songwriter anymore for two-and-a-half years; I was always on the road. I was more of a performer, a traveling salesman. I’d go to your town, pull out my box of CDs, give my little demonstration, sell my wares, go to a cheap hotel and move on.
“That was my life for two-and-a-half-years, so I had to reinvent myself as a songwriter. And I need some open space and time to do that. Luckily, I found it. A year ago at this time, I had two songs and some scraps of ideas; two months later, I had 13 songs. Amazing. I had never written that much before. I was so happy holed up in that cabin in the woods.”
Cleaves can guarantee he won’t be touring “Wishbones” for the next two-and-a-half years.
“I promise,” he said, laughing. “I won’t do that again. I remember, after being on the road for about a year, I noticed that the growth in my audience had tapered off. I had reached this level and it wasn’t getting any bigger, so I thought, ‘Why don’t you go home and write a record?’ My agent said, ‘Well, you’re booked through October of next year, so you can’t really do that.’ I just couldn’t say no.”
It’s not any easier to say no now, Cleaves says, “but I just realized how important it is to say no.”
He’s satisfied with his new status, that he’s paying off debts and that he doesn’t sweat about buying a new pair of sneakers.
“I feel really good about the record,” he said. “I can’t lose. If it does great, then everybody’s happy. If it doesn’t do well, then that’ll make me miserable enough to make a much more moving album the next time around.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I remember buying ‘Revolver,’ as a birthday present for my dad, but of course I was about 5 so I really wanted it. That’s what you do when you’re 5; you buy a present that you want. The first record I bought with my own money for myself was Styx’s ‘The Grand Illusion.’ I was taking piano lessons in junior high at the time, and that was the only record I heard piano in.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Boston, in 1978. It was sold out. It was the first time I had ever smelled marijuana smoke. It was a great ’70s concert-arena experience, at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. They did seven encores, and that was very impressive to us. I remember the cuff of my pants vibrating with the sound.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I had a job with a janitorial service, cleaning up Kmart in Rochester, N.H. I had to be there at like 6 in the morning, and it was a half-hour drive from where I lived. The boss was a real jerk. I just left at the end of the one week and never called the guy, never picked up my check. I didn’t want his money.”
ON THE WEB: slaidcleaves.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Slaid Cleaves album discography – “Promise” (Broken White, 1990); “Life’s Other Side” (1992); “For the Brave & Free” (Slaid Cleaves, 1993); “No Angel Knows” (Philo, 1997); “Broke Down” (Rounder, 2000); “Wishbones” (Philo/Rounder, 2004).
Upcoming tour dates – Aug. 8, Newport, R.I., Apple & Eve Folk Festival; Aug. 10, Ridgefield, Conn., Ballard Park.
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc