Slaid Cleaves says his return to Tucson will be bittersweet. He has a new album built on a recurring theme: perseverance.


Each summer for the past few, Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves returns to his East Coast roots.

But he and his wife Karen don't check into a four-star hotel or bunk with relatives in the suburbs. The pair take up residence in a simple cabin along the banks of a river where the only electricity comes from a solar panel and a small refrigerator is powered by propane.

"There's something really great about having to haul your water in from the spring. ... It's really great to live close to the land for a little while to appreciate everything we have," Cleaves said during a cell phone interview last week from the remote cabin as his annual summer sojourn wound to a close.

This week, Cleaves returns to his everyday life in Texas and a schedule of touring to promote his two-month-old album "Still Fighting the War." He pulls into Tucson's Plaza Palomino Suite 147 Wednesday for a show with Rhythm & Roots.

It's his first Tucson show since he played with Rhythm & Roots on the day in 2011 when former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

We chatted with Cleaves about that day and about his relationship with Jonathan Holden, the late Tucson concert promoter who championed Cleaves work since 2000. Holden died in January 2012.

What was that last show like?

"That was a powerful show. There were people from (Giffords') staff there that night. We talked about whether we should cancel the show or not, but Jonathan was adamant that the show must go on. He was feeling a sense of intimidation, of people trying to intimidate our elected officials, and in that sense, we thought, hell no, we're not going to cancel the show."

You were here for a pivotal moment for Tucson. Having been a regular to Tucson stages, did you feel like an outsider that day or did you feel like someone who shared in our grief?

"You're bringing me back to that day. Having been to Tucson four or five times, it was a very unsettling thing to step into something so intimate and wrenching and important to the community. It was historic and frightening and sad. ... When I play a show in a situation like that, it's scary, but I also feel like it's a moment when I can prove to people and to myself how important music is when people come together and share a moment of grief like that."

This is your first show without Jonathan Holden. What is that going to be like for you?

"It's going to be bittersweet. We were very happy to see that his wife (Susan) has taken on the mantle and continued the tradition. It will be a toast to Jonathan, who was such an ardent supporter of this type of music that a very small fraction of people are into these days. We need our champions. We were very sad to see him go."

What song in your set will serve as a memorial song?

"Some of my songs are sort of eulogies ... We'll do one of those for Jonathan."

Tell me about your new album.

"A lot of the songs are about perseverance through hard times, which is kind of the theme I've been doing for awhile."

What inspired you to pen the title song?

"The song itself started in the depths of this recession. It was more broadly about trying to depict the feeling of being swindled. There's a verse about a guy losing his money in the stock market, a verse about a failed marriage and a verse about a soldier coming home to empty promises. There were phrases in there like 'too big to fail,' 'mission accomplished' and 'home by Christmas.' The song was called 'Unsinkable Ship' for a long time, but after years of writing it and rewriting it, I decided I wanted to concentrate on the soldier's story. ... People who had been through such a harrowing thing, sacrificed so much of their life, to see them struggle when they come home just broke my heart."

Americana music is not a multiplatinum-paved genre, but are you pretty happy with your career?

"I'm thrilled really. ... I hit the jackpot as far as I'm concerned."

You've had some crazy day jobs. Which one would you have done if music hadn't worked out?

"Janitor. Ice cream truck driver. Warehouse picker. That's a tough one. I would probably do the medical research studies. That was the least amount of work for more money."

Wouldn't you be afraid of the possible side effects?

"Yea, there is that. Honestly I did a lot of research. After I did a few of those studies I started hearing the horror stories."

If you go

• What: Slaid Cleaves in concert.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

• Where: Plaza Palomino Suite 147, 2970 N. Swan Road.

• Tickets: $20 in advance at or at any Bookmans location; Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.; or Dark Star Leather in Plaza Palomino. It's $23 at the door.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.