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Fiddle Legend Michael Cleveland on His Life in Bluegrass, Exploring New Ground, and Working with Béla Fleck

Michael Cleveland
Photo Courtesy of .michaelclevelandfiddle.com

Those in the know have long said that Michael Cleveland is the best fiddle player in bluegrass. With 12 IBMA ‘Fiddle Player of the Year’ awards dating back to 2001, Cleveland’s virtuosity and musicianship have propelled him to widespread acclaim and adoration among bluegrass players and fans.

A former prodigy of sorts, the Indiana-born fiddler has been playing professionally since the mid-90’s, recording and touring with his band Flamekeeper, where he primarily plays traditional bluegrass in the style of Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, and Flatt & Scruggs. They’re far from the only band playing or drawing from the style in 2024 but they’re one of the best doing it.

Cleveland can be considered a student of the fiddle and bluegrass music, having studied, played and listened for most of his life. As one of today’s leading lights for the genre, Cleveland can also be considered something of an ambassador for the timeless music he plays. By playing this music at his level, Cleveland preserves important musical tradition while also moving forward, setting an example for his peers, colleagues, and fans in the generations to come.

Though traditional bluegrass will always be in his blood, Cleveland has also ventured outside of that musical world, especially in recent years. His last two albums (2019’s Tall Fiddler and last year’s Lovin’ of the Game) feature a different stylistic mix than his earlier output. While still very considered bluegrass, they feature collaborations and songs from outside of the traditional sound where Cleveland has spent much of his career. This includes songs with progressive bluegrass legends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck, whose recent My Bluegrass Heart album and tour heavily featured Cleveland. Not to mention budding superstar Billy Strings and an appearance by Charlie Starr from southern rock group Blackberry Smoke. The strength of these collaborations is a testament to Cleveland’s virtuosity and continued curiosity.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper return to the Twin Cities Friday Night for a show at the Dakota. With their driving, high-energy sound and playing, the show is a must-catch for any serious bluegrass fan in the area.

The following interview with Michael Cleveland has been edited for length and consistency.

Music in Minnesota: I know you’re a bluegrass lifer. I’m curious how you got started on the fiddle, and how you came to bluegrass music specifically.

Michael Cleveland: You could say that for sure (laughs). The thing that’s a little unusual in my background in music is that none of my family played. A few years before I was born, my grandparents got really into bluegrass. There was a show they were going to once or twice a month that they were gonna stop having. My grandparents loved the music and got to know the bluegrass community and decided they wanted to have a place for pickers to go learn how to play, play on stage and jam, so they started this bluegrass association in Henryville Indiana, which is the town I’m from. There were a couple others that sprung from that in the surrounding areas. I guess by the time I was six months old, my grandparents started taking me to their show. They had their show every second and fourth Saturday, but if there was bluegrass any other weekend, they were there.

People have told me, “I remember when you were in a stroller, you had perfect time to the music even then.” There were musicians who saw me then who said “That’s gonna be a musician, he’s got the timing.” So I was always into the music, but I guess the real turning point was around the time I was four years old. I don’t remember much about being four (laughs) but I do remember hearing a fiddle player on “Orange Blossom Special” and that was the thing that was like “Man, I need to learn how to play fiddle, I need to learn how to do that.” I was really obsessed with that song for a long time, with all the different train sounds and whatnot.

Another thing that’s cool about the song, as is the case with a lot of bluegrass songs, is that everybody has their own interpretation of it. It’s not like it’s written out and everybody plays it the same way – not at all. You could get ten fiddle players together, put them all in a room, and say, “each of you play Orange Blossom Special,” and it would be kind of the same song, but you would hear different stuff in every version. That’s what always intrigued me about the music in general.

Pretty soon after that, I started school at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, where they had a classical music program. They taught all the strings, violin, viola, cello, bass, etc. My parents signed me up for violin lessons there so I remember walking into the classroom the first day. My teacher there, Ms. Nolan, asked me “what makes you want to play the violin?” I said “I don’t know much about the violin, but I know a lot about the fiddle. I want to learn how to play bluegrass and I want to learn The Orange Blossom Special.” She didn’t know what to make of that for a long time, but she said “yeah that’ll be awhile” and it was. It was pretty slow going. A lot of people think “so and so was super talented, he just picked it up and started playing” but it took me about a year and a half.

Once I got to the point where I could learn simple versions of these fiddle tunes, I started taking my fiddle to the local jam that my grandparents had, and the others in the area. It was a really great time for music in general back then but especially around there. It seemed like there were so many great players. I feel like I have been privileged to have been around some of the best players, whether they were professional or not.

We had everybody at these bluegrass shows. There were so many bands that sometimes you couldn’t get them all on. We’re talking seven to eleven, every thirty minutes there’s a different band. You had everybody from beginners to some of the most advanced, professional level players, and they were all just kind of thrown in a pile together. I felt like I learned so much in that environment. I wish there was something like that now. That’s the long-winded version of what you asked (laughs).

MIM:. I know from listening to your music and listening to you talk that you have so many influences that are regional, professional, and then older influences as well, but you’re a student of the music, especially the traditional music. Do you see yourself as an ambassador of that music for younger or future generations?

MC: Well I hope I am. It’s hard to think of yourself in that light. I love to play. I always have, and it was always my dream to be a professional musician, but the reality is that there are so many great musicians out there and not everybody gets the opportunities that I’ve had. I feel very fortunate in that. A lot of people in my school, and rightfully so, said “you need something to fall back on.” Because this music thing is so difficult. If you go in to it with the mentality of “I’m gonna make it big” or “I’m gonna make tons of money and have hit songs,” it’s such a crapshoot and so much of it is being in the right place at the right time.

But as far as me being an ambassador, I hope I am. I know I’ve been inspired and still am inspired by so many fiddle players, and I do hear my licks (laughs). I do hear these great young players and every once in a while, I’ll hear one of my licks in there and it’s like “wow that’s really cool!” that I had something that somebody else wanted to learn.

MIM: I want to ask a little about the last couple albums. With Flamekeeper, you typically play more traditional, but I know you have a lot of musical interests and influences outside of the traditional sound. What inspired you to go beyond that on your last few records?

MC: I’d say it’s been a long time in the making. I’ve always been a diehard traditional bluegrass guy. That’s the bluegrass that I love. Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Stanley Brothers. The groove that Jimmy Martin played in, Bluegrass Album Band, The Johnson Mountain Boys, The Del McCoury Band, those are a lot of my influences. I came to the realization about ten years ago, I was with a buddy of mine at Merlefest, helping him with a showcase he was doing. The rest of the weekend we were just hanging out watching shows. We watched Sam Bush, we watched Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury. And I got to thinking that the people who have the most success in this music have also been involved in other styles of music, but still stayed true to it.

Del McCoury is the perfect example of this. He can put on a traditional bluegrass show, as old school as it gets, and I do think he is the best representation of bluegrass, in the way Bill Monroe meant it to be, in this day in time. He can go out and put on a show like that in front of thousands of hippie fans and people who aren’t so much into bluegrass, and still have the bluegrass audience. Your most hardcore traditional bluegrass people, they love Del McCoury.

I got to thinking about that, and I think a lot of it for me was getting to a place where I thought it was ok to do this. There is a thing with traditional bluegrass where people say “that ain’t bluegrass” or “that is bluegrass” or this and that, and I get it, because I’ve been guilty of it too. There are things I definitely don’t consider bluegrass that might be classified as that.

But the more I got to thinking about it, the people who are doing what I actually want to do and actually having success other than just going out on a weekend every once in a while playing the same festivals year after year after year, the ones that are doing more than that, every one of them have branched out, collaborated with different people, and have experimented with different styles of music.

It took me a while to get to that place where I thought “Yeah, this is okay.” It’s not that I wasn’t into other styles of music, because I’ve listened to rock, jazz, blues, and country, always loved electric guitar, but I think from that point on I started thinking about it differently. Instead of making the record that is going to appeal to the bluegrass community, what can I do to appeal to them and people who have never heard bluegrass?

Not too long after that we did concerts here in Louisville with the Louisville orchestra. They wrote arrangements to some of our songs, and we played to 2,500 people in a nice concert hall. That reinforced to me that, we want to play bluegrass festivals for sure, but man I want to play concert halls, I want to play for the people who’ve never heard bluegrass, who don’t have an idea what it is. Any time we’ve been able to do that, represent bluegrass, its been well received, it’s been such a cool experience.

MIM: Something you said that rings true that goes back to that “ambassador” idea is something that you guys do that Del does, bringing it to the people. And from my perspective, part of the beautiful thing about that as a fan of the music is that it’s so cool to see the people who hear you and then go back. You reach people, and they discover not only your music, but they discover Del’s music, and Bill Monroe’s music, and Ralph Stanley’s music. It’s cool to see you guys inspiring like that.

MC: I saw a Facebook post from a guy where he talked about that. He said if I had the option of playing or talking about Red Allen, one of the legendary bluegrass players of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, for 500 people at a bluegrass festival who already know who Red Allen is, or would I want to stand and play music from Red Allen for thousands of people at a hippie festival, who don’t have a clue? So that’s kind of what I tried to do with the new albums. It pushed me. It was the first time I had worked with Tommy Emmanuel, the first time I had worked with Béla Fleck. Of course, working with Béla on that album, the documentary about that kind of led to the stuff we did with My Bluegrass Heart.

MIM: You’ve toured a lot with Béla the last few years around My Bluegrass Heart. What makes that particular group of musicians and arrangements so special and what did you, as such as student of the music, take or learn from working with that group? You guys are all such high-level musicians.

MC: The thing that I really got from it was that every musician from My Bluegrass Heart, Béla included, everybody in the band has such a work ethic. Everybody’s a great musician, I mean some of the best musicians on the planet, but [we still need] the rehearsals that it takes to play music that advanced.

One thing that was kind of refreshing to me was when I listen to The Bluegrass Sessions, or Drive, I just thought those guys showed up,  charted it out or whatever, and cut it. But no, talking to Béla about it, there were a lot of rehearsals leading up to those sessions. And before we went out, we were all sent the versions of the songs we hadn’t played on the album. We had to learn the rest of the material, so we were all sent the album so we could practice with the arrangement, but it was the most advanced music I’ve ever tried to learn.

When it was time to rehearse, we showed up at nine-thirty, rehearsal started at ten, and went until six. We’d take a lunch break in there, thirty minutes, but it wasn’t socializing and storytelling and a little rehearsing and hanging out, it was rehearsal for weeks. We did that a couple times, but that’s what it takes to play music like that.

The thing that I found most interesting was that Béla pushes himself harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. The work that any of us in this band have done to learn the music is nothing compared to what that guy does every day. When he was working on this ”Rhapsody in Bluegrass” piece, we’d load in to a place, and he’d been practicing on the bus. He’d practice, then we’d soundcheck for an hour and a half, he’d eat a little dinner and then we’d play a show, two or three hours, and then most of the time while we were loading out, he’d be working. That’s why he is as good as he is and it was very interesting for me to see all that and also refreshing to know they didn’t just go into the studio and lay the stuff down like another day in the office either (laughs).

Written by Aaron Williams

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