We could not be more excited to have Slaid Cleaves join us for the Houston Conference next week. It’s just one of the reasons we hope you’ll meet us there.

There’s plenty of eye-rolling when it comes to American country and folk music, mainly because so much of what used to constitute its storytelling now seems untrue. Songs about rust and horses and top hands and tree yodelers—this used to be far-reaching content; it has since shrunken into American oblivion, re-visited mainly in nichey beer bars by minor players. For anyone other than the Americana devotees, country songs consist, at best, of naïve nostalgia about “simpler times”, and at worst, of abject denial about who we are. And perhaps it is true. The mythology of the cowboy is attractive—so are his unfettered loyalties and his rough-and-ready simplicity. A friend of mine asked me not long ago what it said about me that I liked country music—someone who does not have horses, or commitment issues, or welding burns. Maybe it’s that I wish I had them.

But country music is also out of favor because it is so damned earnest. In a time when irony and obscurity are as instrumental on an album as the drums (or the Moog), it’s a little embarrassing to hear someone sing plainly about how much they’ve been crying lately. And it’s also embarrassing because they’re doing that in every song—without any kind of off-the-wall musical mediation.

And, argue the country critics, maybe there’s no synthesizing keyboard onstage, but what about all those stupid stories? Aren’t they a form of synthetic mediation? Songs about rancheros and mesas—aren’t the old stories themselves a way to sham the listener into thinking it’s authentic?

I saw Slaid Cleaves here in Charlottesville two weeks ago, a sit-down show at a place called The Southern, for a room full of fans. It was the kind of show where the audience knew all the songs already, knew the last time he played in town better than he did, and waited around afterward to say hello. He jokes that one hit, “Brokedown,” brought him from total obscurity to relative obscurity—but that he likes it that way, that his fans can thus brag about their discerning taste in country music. An old couple from Kentucky had driven all the way to Virginia for the show, and asked Slaid to play the same song they asked him to play the last time they saw him, two years ago.

Slaid Cleaves is not a Texan by birth but by disposition. He did not grow up on the mesas, but in the woods of South Berwick, Maine. He is a Texas transplant, but has lived in Texas long enough for it to become his disposition, and his discography speaks more of Texas than it does of anywhere else: “Horseshoe Lounge,” “Tumbleweed Stew” and “Texas Love Song” and all the others. But, it begs the question, is it authentic, coming from this transplant? How can a listener, who has never heard of tumbleweed stew, listen to someone tell a story about eating tumbleweed stew with a crew of cowboys on a range full of coyotes, without cracking a smile a little bit? The answer comes in the bridge: “Old man, are you listening? Because I’m down here asking you, / I know you made me this way, so what do you expect me to do?”

The answer: Of course it’s worth it! Tumbleweed Stew is just our entrée into the mesquite where we ask the question of God that we’ve already asked a thousand times: are you here, God? In this failure? It is as worth it as any story we keep re-telling, whether it’s the shootout at the OK Corral or the Feeding of the Multitude. The stories we keep reading and the songs we want to keep hearing are good because they carry a truth we seem bent on forgetting. In other words, good country music is not merely a take-me-back experience—country music preaches.

For Slaid Cleaves, the story that preaches best is the classic country story: the law that reality grounds the stories we’d like to tell ourselves. “Every man is a myth / Every woman a dream / Watch your little heart get crushed / When the truth gets in between.” Many of Slaid’s songs deal with the sharp and painful distinction between the dream of a thing and its reality. In “Beyond Love,” two lovers lay in bed, alienated by years coping with unspokens. In “One Good Year,” New Years Day provides the same old story: “I can’t find the will / To just up and get away / Some kind of chain’s holding me down / To make me stay”. In “I Bet She Does” a man would like to forgive his lover’s betrayal, but he can’t open himself to be tricked again, so things remain unchanged. In “Wishbones” he says what he has said with them all, “I guess some dreams just don’t come true / Nothing left but skin and wishbones.”

There’s power in acknowledging this sadness with the world, to our inveterate vices and the hard winds of circumstance. Country music can be boiled down to this sadness, that, as Slaid sings in his newest album, Still Fighting the War, “You can let fate lead / Or wait for it to drag you.” In an interview with a Milwaukee radio station, he commented on this sadness, “There’s an ancient appeal in my bones there for the sad song. And then growing up as an adolescent, hard-hitting, sad songs that sort of told my story or articulated the hard times I was going through growing up – those were very, very powerful and valuable to me.”

But it’s not all lost when reality thwarts our hold on life. Another song from the new album, “Hometown USA” takes place in long-mythologized Harlan, Kentucky, where two strangers, a young waitress and a prodigal son, both look in on the lives they can’t believe they’ve ended up living. For her: “What happened to the leading lady, living her life up on the stage / Still only working as an extra in a film called Hometown, USA” And for him: “What happened to the “Ride ‘Em Cowboy”, living his life out on the range? / He’s just another hired hand now in a film called Hometown, USA

The dramatic power is thick here. Not only is Slaid talking about the bastardized contexts that country music has been situated in—an authenticity anachronism, a pop-frenzied advertisement—but he’s also talking about death and resurrection. Yes, we all wanted to be cowboys, and yes we had big hopes for the future, but our failed lives have brought us back to the failproof hometowns that will take us back at midnight. As the male figure takes the Greyhound into Harlan, our narrator tells us the story of redemption we need sung once again:

Now they don’t know their fate is turning
They’re drifting closer in the dark
And as he steps in for a quick one
She’s already at the bar
…Sure didn’t turn out like they planned
But now they’ve found their own true way
It’s not the big break that they dreamed of
But you know they’re gonna be okay