Ten times in his career so far, Michael Cleveland has been named the International Bluegrass Music Association Fiddle Performer of the Year. So, it would stand to reason that the Indiana native grew up listening to the legends of the instrument.
“I loved all of them…Benny Martin, Scotty Stoneman, Bobby Hicks, Kenny Baker, Dale Potter – I’ve listened to them all, and tried to learn something from all of them,” Michael Cleveland told CMChat. “Each of them had their own great technique, that really set them apart, and that was a really cool aspect of it.”
The lauded fiddler, who heads up the group Flamekeeper, has just released a brand new solo CD entitled Fiddler’s Dream. As part of the promotional process, he stopped by Bill Cody and Charlie Mattos’s morning show on WSM-AM, where he introduced the host to a new musical term when he spoke of a friend of his who “re-voiced” the fiddle. He said he’s not an expert on the art, but tried his best to explain it for us. “I don’t really know that much about it other than he does work on the back of a fiddle. If it’s built with too much wood, they can take some wood out of it.” When asked if the amount of wood used in making an instrument made a difference in the style, he said “There’s no real difference except for how it sounds to the player. Of course, a builder might be able to tell you more about that. I don’t know what goes into making a good one or a bad one. It either sounds good or it doesn’t.”
One thing is for sure – Fiddler’s Dream contains the cream of the crop in the way of Bluegrass players, with Sam Bush, Vince Gill, and Jeff White – who co-produced the record – all lending their talents to the Compass Records release. “I was really lucky to get to play with some of the best,” Michael Cleveland said. “I’ve gotten to work with a lot of great people over the years, and this album came off well. I’ve been wanting to do another solo record for a while. I had been thinking about who I might want on it.”
One name that appears on the record, though not a household name, is a longtime friend. “There’s a good friend of mine named Lloyd Douglas, who is a great banjo player. I think he is one of the best-kept secrets in Bluegrass. He toured with Jim & Jesse on the road in the late 1990s, and then he played with Jesse McReynolds for a while after Jim McReynolds passed. Then, he got off the road for a bit. He’s got a family, and is actually a conductor on the railroad. He lives in Alpena, MI and works for the railroad full time. Every now and then, he will fill in for somebody. He’s always my first call.”
Speaking of phone calls, one that will stay with him for the rest of his life is one that he received a few years ago from Alison Krauss, who invited the fiddler to play with her on the Grand Ole Opry at age 13. He recalls how that call came to pass. “We had done the IBMA Award show, where Pete Wernick had put together a group of kids – there was an article in the Washington Post that said Bluegrass was dying out, and young people weren’t interested in the music anymore. It was 1993, and there weren’t a lot of kids playing – at least where I was. Pete was determined to put together a band of kids to prove the article wrong. He got me, Cody Kilby, Josh Williams, Chris Thile, and my friend Brady Stocker played the bass,” he said of a band that featured several superstars in the Bluegrass format. In fact, they were dubbed “The Bluegrass Youth All-Stars.”
“We played a song on the awards, and I met her there. Not too long after that, there was a show in Southern Indiana where Alison Krauss and Union Station were playing, and my parents came out and talked to her a little bit. A couple of weeks later, I came home from school, and the phone rang. I picked it up, and she said ‘Hey, it’s Alison.’ I said ‘Alison who?’ She wanted me to come play with them. The only blessing was I was too young and too stupid to be nervous. I had no idea at that time what I was in the middle of.”
With a new album to promote, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper plan to promote the album the old fashioned way into 2017 – by touring a lot. “We’ve got a lot of dates on the books. We’re playing a lot of venues that we haven’t played. We love playing the Festivals, and are also trying to get into more of the Performing Arts Centers, and Jam Festivals, where people might not have heard a lot of Bluegrass before. I think that’s where it needs to be.”