Interview: Michael Cleveland on spreading his musical wings beyond traditional bluegrass

Credit: Amy Richmond

If you want to be one of the best bluegrass fiddle players you need to start playing at age four.

Michael Cleveland is a 12-time IBMA Fiddle Player Of The Year and a Grammy Award-winner who also has been visually impaired from birth and who has lost part of his hearing in one ear. He is releasing his new album  ‘Lovin Of The Game’ at the beginning of March which features his road band Flamekeeper and a whole host of guests from the bluegrass world plus some musical non-bluegrass surprises. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Michael Cleveland over Zoom at his Southern Indiana home to chat about what drew him to bluegrass at a very young age, the challenges of getting the right support as a youngster to pursue his dream of being a bluegrass fiddler, and how the support of his grandparents was absolutely key in him developing his love of bluegrass. He also explains why ‘Lovin’ Of The Game’ shows him stretching his musical wings beyond traditional bluegrass, and his current listening also shows his openness to different sounds.  His band Flamekeeper has developed its own reputation for musical excellence, and Michael Cleveland explains how he almost accidentally became a band leader and how the band came together. Finally, he sheds light on the material influence Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Music Park had on the  Indiana bluegrass community.

You were born in Indiana and still live there, coming from the UK I don’t know a lot about the Indiana bluegrass scene, what is it like?

A lot of people don’t know that, but Bill Monroe, who was from Rosine, Kentucky, actually lived in Indiana for a long time when he was trying to find work with his brothers, and he ended up buying a park in Brown Country, Indiana, called Bean Blossom and he started a bluegrass festival there in 1967. That got a lot of people interested, and even before he started the festival he was having shows there in Bean Blossom. So that’s how it started, and Louisville, Kentucky, is only about ten or fifteen miles across the river from me in Southern Indiana, and there used to be a bunch of people playing bluegrass in the clubs around this area, and at one point Tony Rice, Sam Bush, and Vince Gill all lived around there. Kentucky claims I’m from Indiana, and Indiana claims I’m from Kentucky, haha.

You were born visually impaired and you lost part of your hearing in one ear. What has that meant for your music and how did you find your love of bluegrass music?

I started playing when I was four, and I had been around music a lot before that. None of my family had ever played it, but my grandparents fell in love with bluegrass music and they actually started a Bluegrass Association in Henryville, Indiana, and they started it a few years before I was born just to give people a place to come and learn how to play, and it was a really cool place. There was an open stage, so bands could sign up to play for thirty minutes, and while the stage show was going on they had an audience, people would come to listen to the music every time they had it, and in the basement of the American Legion, where they held it, there would be all kinds of jam sessions with people just impromptu playing together. You could then go back to this little room where the band who would be on later would be tuning up and just playing, and if the weather was nice outside, there would be people playing out there.  It was just constant music, so from the time I was born until I was six months, though I don’t remember it, haha, my grandparents said they started taking me there. So there were my grandparents’ shows, and there were two other shows in the area that were going on on the other Saturdays. My grandparents’ shows happened on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, and then there was a show in Scottsburg, Indiana, on the third Saturday and if there was a fifth Saturday, then there was another show in Madison, Indiana, which wasn’t too far, which was on the first Saturday. So pretty much every weekend my grandparents were taking me to these bluegrass shows, and I always liked bluegrass and I was always fascinated by it, but when I really decided I wanted to play it I heard a fiddle player play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ when I was about four years old, and while I don’t remember much about being four years old I do remember that haha. I heard this and at that point, I knew I had to learn how to play it.

Initially, they weren’t really sure because I was visually impaired, and you asked what it was like learning being visually impaired, and I think it would be hard to compare because I was born visually impaired, had I not been it might have been harder, but whatever. When I started school I started at The Kentucky School For The Blind in Louisville, and they had a Springs program that taught classical violin with the Suzuki Method. So I started with that. A friend of mine was the biggest musician in Henryville, Indiana, he was someone everyone looked up to, and If you asked who was a good musician and a good fiddle player they would tell you Geoff Berenson, and my grandparents had talked to him about giving me lessons, but he didn’t really know how to teach me to keep the bow in the correct spot on the strings with me being visually impaired and not being able to see it. So they knew we would have to find another way, and when I started at The Kentucky School For The Blind they had the Springs program and that was perfect. I remember the first day I walked into the classroom the music teacher, Miss Melon, asked me why I wanted to learn the violin and what I knew about it, and I told her I don’t know much about the violin, but that I knew a lot about the fiddle, haha. Then she asked me what I knew about the fiddle, and told her I wanted to learn to play bluegrass and to play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and she told me that was a while away, and it was, but that is kind of how I got started.

It was slow going for a while, it was probably a year and a half or two years before I could really get going and play simple versions of stuff. Once I got to a certain point I started taking my fiddle around to all the local shows, my grandparents’ shows, and the other ones, just trying to learn and play with anybody who would let me. I’ve got to say, there was every level of musicians at these shows, there was everything from people just starting out to people who could have played professionally, but never did because of jobs, families, and everything else. So you really got the whole scope of playing levels and styles. When you are in something you don’t think about how good it is, but now when I look back on it, and I see what the music community is like now, I wish there was something like we had now because there isn’t anymore. Pretty much everyone there was supportive and encouraging, and let me play along with them when I really didn’t have any business playing with them, haha. I was pretty bad when I was starting out.

In your formative years was it mainly traditional bluegrass you heard or did you also get to hear some new grass?

I was primarily listening to traditional bluegrass because that is what a lot of people around here played, and there weren’t a lot of kids into bluegrass around this area at that time. As a matter of fact, I was for a long time the only person of my age playing bluegrass, there would be a couple of kids who would come around once in a while, but no one young. So, the people I was learning from and playing with were a lot older and most of them were into traditional bluegrass. I think I was aware of New Grass Revival, Bela Fleck, and people like that, but primarily at that time what people were listening to was Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Jim and Jesse, and all the fiddle players. You could find these compilation albums in truck stops or in the mall or where ever, with all these great fiddle players on them like Scotty Stoneman and Benny Martin, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, and people like that, which was really good because not only did you hear the tunes, but depending on which album you played, you could hear Scotty Stoneman play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and then on another album you could hear Benny Martin’s version.

I think it was a good thing in the sense that hearing traditional bluegrass and growing up in that environment gave me a foundation I probably wouldn’t have had. Now I’ve got a good friend who plays banjo who kind of grew up in traditional bluegrass and then went the opposite way like he and his dad really got into new grass and the progressive side of things and he learnt some of the traditional stuff later. I do think it helped me as a musician to appreciate bluegrass, that good foundation, and it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that I began to appreciate Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, David Grisman, and people like that. Some people have a pretty narrow view of what bluegrass is, and I’ve been guilty of that at times myself, but it is all music, it is all good, you know, it just depends on what you like and want to listen to and play. Now I’ve really reached the point when I want to play it all, I guess, haha.

Your new record ‘Lovin Of The Game’ to my ears isn’t strictly traditional bluegrass, what was the idea behind it?

Well, you know when I start recording I never have a full concept for an album, and usually, the last thing to come to me or for me to figure out is what I will call an album. It usually starts with a really good batch of songs, and I have to narrow it down from there. As a matter of fact, I’m that bad with the tunes I write, I can write something and play it, and it can be a completed song and it can be like pulling teeth to come up with a song title, haha. I did know that a lot of people think of me as a traditional bluegrass fiddle player, and that is what I am and will always be, but with this album, I wanted to show that I could do a lot more than that. With my last album, ‘Tall Fiddler’, I think I was heading in that direction, and with this album, I wanted to establish that I liked to jam out on songs every so often and I like to play different styles, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop playing bluegrass because I love it and that is what I’m always going to play. The work I’ve been doing over the last few years collaborating with people like Tommy Emmanuel and Bela Fleck, and people like that, has really allowed me to step out a little bit.

You recorded it with your band Flamekeeper and a whole host of guest musicians, how was that arranged and how did you fit each guest musician to a particular track?

A lot of the guests on the album are people I have collaborated with before. I’ve been able to play a few shows with Billy Strings, and recently I got to play on the album with him and his dad called ‘Me/And/Dad’, and I got to play fiddle on that, and even before that I’d sat in with him on a few shows and done a few other things. With a lot of them, I just asked, haha, like are you up for playing or singing something on the album. As far as figuring out who will do what on each song is a very good question. When I hear a song, and it doesn’t have to be a bluegrass song, I think it is important as a musician or band leader when you are putting an album together that you are able to imagine a song with you doing it, how would you do the song but it is hard to listen past what is there. It is like a hard rock song with blaring guitars and distortion where you go it would sound great with a banjo on this, haha.

So you do have to kind of imagine because the song we did with Billy Strings, ‘For Your Love’, is not a bluegrass song at all but it kind of has a bluegrass tempo to it and it was written by a guy called Joe Ely, and you can listen to his version on YouTube and it is great, it has great electric guitar playing on it. My producer Jeff White sent me that song and I liked it immediately, and I could definitely hear it as a bluegrass song from the start. I knew Billy would be perfect for it, but when I talked to him about doing it I told him I wanted him on the song but that I also wanted to make it something he would do. So, it wasn’t like I was hiring him to just play on the song I wanted it to be a collaboration and to sound like what his fans would also like, as well as mine. I think we did that, and it gets to a point where the song really breaks down and gets into really spacey jamgrass, and then comes back to more traditional bluegrass.

‘One Horse Town’ is another good example because our guitar player, Josh Richards, started singing that song, and it is a song done by Blackberry Smoke the southern rock band, and Josh posted a video during the pandemic when we couldn’t do much and I thought as a band we’ve got to do that, as a band we have to figure out how to do that. So we worked the song up as a band, and the more I got to listening to it I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we could get Charlie Starr, lead singer of Blackberry Smoke, to sing on this with Josh. I didn’t know anything about the band or how to get in touch with anybody, but it just so happens that the company that manages Tommy Emmanuel and Jerry Douglas, Vector Management, also manages Blackberry Smoke. So from somebody I knew at Vector, I was able to get an email address for Charlie Starr. When I sent it I thought this guy isn’t going to know me from Adam, haha, he won’t know me and I didn’t think I would get anything back even though I introduced myself in the email and I tried to tell him what we were doing, we were recording this song, and we would love to have him sing on it, and please get back if there is any interest. It might have been the same day that I got an email back, and the email said that he knew exactly who I was and that twenty years ago he used to watch me at Hoofer’s Gospel Barn in Lagrange, Georgia, and he said he loved my playing and he would love to do it with us, haha. It just shows you want a small world it really is, because I had no idea that Charlie Starr would even know who I was and it just went from there.

Also, this album has lots of collaborations that didn’t necessarily happen in the studio, because with Charlie Starr the band and I recorded the track and I then sent it to Charlie who overdubbed his part in a studio in Atlanta. He sent it back, and you never know with stuff like that, you never know what you are going to get or how it is going to be, but it was absolutely perfect, it was more than we were expecting or we could have asked for. There were a few things like that on this album, there is a song ‘Contact’ that I recorded during the pandemic when everything got shut down and I’d just gotten started on Pro Tools because I do a lot of sessions here at the house where people will send me songs and I will play fiddle or mandolin or whatever is needed, and it is a lot of what I do during the week and I love it.  But I got to thinking when everything was locked down, what if we can’t record, man, what if we can’t get into a studio to record for a while, is there a possibility I could record remotely with everybody?  I had this mandolin instrumental that I’d written quite a few years back, and I sent it to a guitar player friend of mine, Cody Kilby, and he laid down a great guitar track on it, then a great bass player who works with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and many others, Barry Bales, put bass on it and I did the mandolin and fiddle, and Bela Fleck was kind enough to put banjo on it. Everybody recorded on that remotely from their studios, nobody was in the same room playing it, and I was just amazed at how well it turned out. So it just goes to show even if nothing can replace being there together and working out the arrangement and playing the song as a unit, man, it is the next best thing.

Your band Flamekeeper have a bit of a reputation themselves, how did you get them together and what are the dynamics like?

Well, we all give each other a hard time, haha, it is constant in this band. It is weird how it kind of happened because my band started in 2006 and I never really set out to be a band leader I just wanted to play music. It just happened that the band I was playing with didn’t have a lot of work and I had recorded some solo albums for Rounder Records while I was with Rhonda Vincent in 2000 and 2001, and I played with Dale Anne Bradley from 2002 to 2006.  My solo albums did pretty well but I still didn’t have any thoughts of starting a band or anything like that, but around 2006 the schedule seemed like it was going to be light for the summer so I reached out to some of the people who had played on these albums and asked who would like to play some shows every once in a while, just some special collaborative shows that could be billed as this all-star thing at some festivals or whatever, and they were all down to do it and that is kind of how it all got started. So we did one of those shows, and the guy who became our booking agent heard us and he came up to me and told me this is what we needed to be doing.

It’s been a learning experience, for sure, for both me and my father who has been a huge help in everything I do. It is interesting that the band started with different musicians to those that are in it now, the guitar player and mandolin play, Josh Richards and Nathan Livers, the three of us grew up together here in Southern Indiana, so we’ve known each other since we were kids and we never did think we would be in a band together. They’ve been in my band for ten years now, but we’ve known each other way longer than that, and Chris Douglas the bass player, the same way, I’ve known him for over twenty years. He and I played together for a short while in Rhonda Vincent’s band, and he is somebody I’ve always wanted to play music with. It is kind of like everything has come full circle, and the banjo player Jasiah Shrode has been in the band for five years now. So it has really worked out better than I could have imagined, and getting to play with people I’ve known all my life. It is really like a family, and I wouldn’t take anything for that.

Do you have any plans to bring ‘Lovin Of The Game’ to the UK?

I’d love to, the thing about it is to find something feasible with airfares, hotels, and everything but I’d love to come to the UK. I’ve been before and I’ve played shows in England, Scotland, and Ireland, but it has been many years and I would love to get back.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

So how about Boston, ‘Smokin’, from their first album.  I love Boston, and I’ve become a big Boston fan and a big ‘70s rock fan. ‘Tater Tate and Allen Mundy’ from John Hartford’s ‘Mark Twang’ album, and another one, ‘California Man’ by Cheap Trick.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Just thanks for showing an interest, and if anyone wants to know more about me and the band, just check out www.michaelclevelandfiddle.com and our social media is @MCFlamekeeper. We try and do live videos whenever we can. Thanks for giving the album a listen and thanks for your time.

Michael Cleveland’s ‘Lovin’ Of The Game’ is released on March 3rd on Compass Records.


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About Martin Johnson 274 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

4 Comments

  1. His work on Bela Fleck “My Bluegrass Heart”/Wheels Up definitely worth checking out. Bryan Sutton and Sierra Hull also. Fantastic stuff

  2. Outstandingly energetic player. I think the feature length documentary about him can be found on YouTube or maybe Amazon Prime Video and the video of him playing ‘Sally Goodin’ with Billy Strings at 2019’s ‘String the Halls’ is a must see. Great interview. Thanks

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