Sunday evening finds Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves marking the release of his new album “Ghost on the Car Radio” with a concert at Stateside of the Paramount. Earlier this week, he offered a sneak-preview at Waterloo Records, where a sizable crowd turned out on a Monday afternoon to hear him play a few songs with accompanist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who produced the album.
We included “Ghost on the Car Radio” in our recent list of the best local releases midway through 2017. “A dozen records into a quarter-century career, the Maine-born singer-songwriter stays relevant because he’s gotten better all the time,” we wrote in our Austin360 On The Record review of the album. “He’s now a master, as these 12 songs attest.”
Last week we sat down with Cleaves at Donn’s Depot to take a deeper look at the music he has made across the past three decades. That story will be in Friday’s American-Statesman, and it’s online now:
Here’s an excerpt from the story that involves both 20th-century American music icon Woody Guthrie, whose birthday is tomorrow, and the late Austin troubadour Jimmy LaFave, who would have turned 62 yesterday.
It was at Chicago House, the space now occupied by Tellers on Trinity Street downtown, that LaFave first heard Cleaves. Impressed by the young transplant’s warm tenor voice and folksy charm, he recommended Cleaves for an early slot on a big Woody Guthrie tribute at La Zona Rosa featuring Butch Hancock, Ray Wylie Hubbard and many other luminaries of the early-’90s Austin country-folk scene.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is my chance to make an impression,’” Cleaves remembers. “So I needed to come up with the coolest, most obscure Woody Guthrie song, to get people’s attention.”
His good fortune was that his wife recently had bought a new book of previously unpublished Woody Guthrie writings for him. “So I flipped through it and looked for some verses I could put to music. I found ‘This Morning I Am Born Again,’ put it to music and played it at the show. I think I was the second act, and played for about 12 people. But obviously Jimmy heard it.”
LaFave urged Cleaves to send a tape of the song to the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York. He sent one, and then another a little later after not hearing back. LaFave went to bat for Cleaves as well, and when Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie took over the archive from former Guthrie manager Harold Leventhal, the tide began to turn.
Finally, sometime in the mid-late ’90s Cleaves got the word from Nora. “She called me and said, ‘Congratulations, we’re going to publish this song as “Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Slaid Cleaves.”’ Man, what a thrill that was,” he says, still moved by the memory two decades later.