It's a prerequisite these days for singer-songwriters to have personal stories at least as compelling as their songs. Slaid Cleaves has that requirement covered fairly and squarely. The Maine native launched his career busking in Cork, Ireland, while attending college in 1985. His stateside return led him to form the rootsy country punk trio the Moxie Men, which distinguished itself by placing high in a Musician
magazine "Best Unsigned Band" contest. That wasn't enough for young Cleaves, who set out for Austin, Texas -- the mecca of songwriter types -- where he began to expand his repertoire and range, self-releasing a couple of albums and ultimately scoring a contract with Philo/Rounder. His first album for Philo, 1997's No Angel Knows
, was a marvel of folk/roots angst. Three years later, Cleaves has finally managed to pull off the road long enough to record a fresh batch of songwriter brilliance, the aptly titled Broke Down
. Cleaves's style falls somewhere between Loudon Wainwright III without the goofy streak and Freedy Johnston without the despair, and focuses on the best of both. He complements his own songs on Broke Down
with some beautifully crafted covers (Karen Poston's "Lydia," Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Moving In") and a Billy Bragg/Wilco-like pairing of Woody Guthrie's lyrics to Cleaves music ("This Morning I Am Born Again"). Cleaves is well on his way to making a big impact in a field that is filled to overflowing with guys that pretend to be this good.