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the big payback

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Now, a couple of years down the line, the 38-year-old songwriter is singing a happier tune as he prepares for the month-long late summer tour that takes him to California and East Coast venues. A stop at Ashland Coffee & Tea is slated for Thursday, Sept. 19.

"Things have changed a lot. I've been through a lot," Cleaves says quietly. "I was pretty demoralized. I'd been in Austin eight years. Got no press, no audience. That all turned around with 'Broke Down.'…I got on the cool radio stations, my audience quadrupled. It's very, very gratifying."

This, of course, does not imply that Cleaves is making wads of money or selling megamillions of CDs. But it does mean the years of struggle that began in earnest when he moved to Austin in 1991 are paying off. More folks are listening to Slaid's well-crafted acoustic slice-of-life songs rich in their quiet defiance and mercy. Gigs are better, and he has become a regular at the influential Newport Folk Festival. The ride is also smoother as he moves from town to town.

"I stepped up and got a nice van," Cleaves says with a smile in his voice. "Got away from the old Dodge Dart."

Old Dodge Dart or snazzy new van, Cleaves says that after this tour he is parking his ride to take a break from the road and write songs for a new CD. The Ashland show will be his last in the area for a while. Fans of sturdy songs performed with honesty and wit will do well to see what the growing fuss is all about.

"We've kicked and scratched our way," he says, noting with humorous irony that life is never simple. "I've gathered an audience somehow. Now I've got other things to complain about." — A.A.



Slaid Cleaves plays Ashland Coffee & Tea, Sept. 19, with guitarist Charles Arthur. Caroline Herring opens. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available through www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com.

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