Slaid Cleaves may be the Americana genre’s most underappreciated songwriter. With a knack for giving breath to perpetually down-on-their-luck characters on albums like 2000’s excellent Broke Down, the Austin by way of Maine artist evokes writers from Guy Clark to Tom Petty, crafting detailed portraits of barflies, drifters and day laborers. On June 23rd, he releases his latest album, Ghost on the Car Radio, another collection of songs that reinforce Cleaves’ reputation as a master storyteller, one influenced not by the shine of pop-culture but by the dirt of real life.
“I don’t feel any connection to the Dancing With the Stars, National Football League or CMT country music,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “I feel like I’m sort of living outside my culture in this little Americana world that we have. It’s a tiny part of the culture, but it’s very vibrant and has everything I need in it.”
Both in terms of creative inspiration and in the music itself. “The old forms still work for me,” Cleaves says. “I don’t need the drum machine. I’m a throwback.”
On the new song “Drunken Barber’s Hand,” written with frequent collaborator Rod Picott (who released his own version of the tune), Cleaves revisits the more political bent he took on his last LP, 2013’s Still Fighting the War. With its cutting chorus – “This world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand” – and its allusion to W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the shuffling, haunting track suggests that the world may not be spinning the way it should. (Listen to the premiere below.)
“It seems like we’re in a place we’ve been before and it didn’t go well. It’s here and abroad. Countries are isolating and going for strongmen,” he says. “When I was writing the song a year ago, it was before we had the relief of the Danish and French elections, and it looked like the dominoes were going to start falling and we’d be looking at 1933 all over again.”
Cleaves will launch a summer tour, beginning in cities throughout Texas, in July.