Slaid Cleaves grew up in South Berwick and established himself as a singer, songwriter and guitarist here in Maine before heading south to Texas in 1991, where he lives in the Austin area. Known for his spot-on, hard-hitting lyrics and melody-driven tunes, Cleaves’ albums, from 1994’s “For The Brave and Free” to 2017’s “Ghost on the Car Radio,” present the growth and development of a true songwriting talent.

When I learned he was heading back to Maine for a couple of shows at Johnson Hall, I decided to reconnect after a couple of years to find out what’s been happening in his life. Calling his home in Wimberley, Texas, I double-checked the May 11 and 12 gigs in Gardiner.

Cleaves: That’s right. I’ve played there the last three years, I think.

Q: So, it must have been for one of those previous shows that I interviewed you last.
Cleaves: Yeah, maybe when the new record was out — that was “Ghost on the Car Radio.”

Q: That was back in 2017. Are you working on a new album, just out of curiosity?
Cleaves: No, just trying to get enough songs, but it’s going slow.

Q: Well, you do take time between your releases, correct?
Cleaves: Yeah, because it’s all in-house nowadays, so there’s an awful lot of paperwork and administration going on when you’re your own label. Between me and Karen, we’re label and management and booking and tour managing and everything (chuckle).

Q: Oh, Lord!
Cleaves: Yeah, it’s kinda hard to squeeze the songwriting in these days — it takes a while.

Q: Wow, I never knew how involved it was to be an independent artist. Does the songwriting come easy to you, at least?
Cleaves: No, never has. My M.O. usually is to try to get away from all the tours and everyday duties and just sequester myself in a cell for a few days until I come up with something. I haven’t had the time to do that lately.

Q: Well, how much time is taken up with touring over the course of a year?
Cleaves: Oh, we’re gone about half-a-year away from home and it’s usually 100 shows — something like that. And, when you’re away from home that much, things kinda pile up as far as things-to-do-when-you-get-home goes — it’s a constant challenge to juggle time.

Q: That kind of exposes the down side of the supposed glamor of being a singer-songwriter out on the road wowing the fans at shows.
Cleaves: (Chuckle) Yeah, I’m not sitting in the back of the tour bus with a driver and a staff taking me everywhere. I’m driving a minivan myself with Karen, so we wear many hats.

Q: But, is that getting out on stage and performing kind of a refuge from the chaos of what you do to get there?
Cleaves: Yeah, that’s definitely the best part of the day; interacting with people and enjoying the people appreciating my music — there’s nothing better than that. To connect with people or just connect people with my songs, that’s what it’s all about and that’s why we do all the work to make that happen.

Q: How do you find the audiences up at Johnson Hall?
Cleaves: It’s been wonderful that last few years. When we play outside the major cities, people come out from the small towns, and they don’t get to see that much live music, so they’re very excited. I tend to get that feel in Gardiner; you can see it in their faces … it’s very gratifying.

Q: Do you get back to Maine much?
Cleaves: Well, we’ve kind of woven it into our lives since the very first year we moved to Austin. We were only here for five months before we hightailed it back to Maine for the summer to get out of the heat, for one thing, and because I also had gigs established in Maine. Breaking into Texas was a long, slow journey. So, we sort of built our life around the fact that we had family still in Maine and an audience up there, as well. So for the last 27 years, we’ve been popping back and forth.

Q: That can’t be an easy commute, for sure.
Cleaves: (Chuckle) Back when we started, it was three 12-hour days of driving. Now our annual migration from Texas to Maine is about a two- or three-week trip with shows in many towns from North Texas to St. Louis to Pittsburgh to D.C. to upstate New York and eventually Maine. And, to make it more complicated, we’re doing two trips to Maine now: one in the spring and one in the summer. In the spring, we go up to open our camp in Cherryfield, and then the summer migration, we drive up through all those cities and play at Stone Mountain on July 26, and July 27 we’re at One Longfellow in Portland. Then we’ll take some time off in Maine, and the trip home starts with the Unitarian Church concert in Brunswick.

Q: Well, Johnson Hall and Stone Mountain Arts Center and One Longfellow Square are all very intimate and wonderful listening rooms.
Cleaves: Yeah, and to connect with people through a song is a very intimate and very rewarding thing … and for the last 20 years, its venues like that where I love to play.

Q: Is there anything, Slaid, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Cleaves: Just to mention Karen. She’s from Waterville, and she’s the brains behind the organization, behind the scenes. She does everything but write the songs and sing them, so I couldn’t do it without her.

Q: And, seeing you’ve played Johnson Hall so many times over the last few years, the fans there know you well.
Cleaves: I think this will be our fourth year in a row where we’ve done a two-night stand in Gardiner. It’s a very nice venue with a very friendly, supportive staff, and we’ve had great crowds — with my family and Karen’s there, that makes it special, too.

Lucky Clark has spent 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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