You can learn a lot about the musical mindset of Michael Cleveland from the account of how he and his band Flamekeeper came to cover an ‘80s pop song on their latest bluegrass album, On Down the Line.
First, a bit of background: Cleveland is a blind fiddle phenom from a small town in southern Indiana, practically within shouting distance of the Kentucky line. From his early sideman gigs with Dale Ann Bradley and Rhonda Vincent to his own outfit, he’s hewed to hardcore bluegrass.
When Flamekeeper’s Josh Richards sent an iPhone voice memo with a guitar-vocal version of “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Cleveland assumed it was a Richards original.
“When he said he hadn’t written it,” Cleveland recalls, “I was thinking, ‘Well, what Del McCoury album is this on?’”
None of them, as it turns out. “Too Late for Goodbyes” is by Beatles progeny Julian Lennon. What sold Cleveland on cutting the song was the way the vocal melody leaps into high-and-lonesome range and lends itself to a hard-driving, straight-ahead attack.
“I never would’ve thought this band would’ve done a rock cover,” offers Cleveland, “but it’s bluegrass, man.”
Traditional bluegrass is the standard by which he measures everything, but he’s knowledgeable enough to carve out room for originality, too.
CMT Edge: The way your career has unfolded is a best-case scenario for a bluegrass musician of your generation. You went to regional jams as a kid, and older players recognized your talent. Right out of high school, you got a full-time gig, then started collecting awards, then stepped out on your own. Did you have a sense of how to get where you wanted to be?
Cleveland: No. Boy, I tell you what, though. If there’d have been a road map laid out, I would’ve went looking for it. Most of the good fortune that I’ve had has been from just being at the right place at the right time and knowing [the right people]. Some friends recommended me for a gig or whatever. For the most part, it all just kind of happened. I definitely knew I wanted to play, and I definitely knew that if I could, I wanted to make a living at it. But I had no idea how to do it.
You’ve said it wasn’t so easy to find players of your generation who were as into playing first-generation bluegrass as you were. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s just what people are listening to now. The younger players, they’re listening to what they grew up on and what’s happening now. Say you were born in 1992, and you listen to the music that’s going on then, and you don’t really investigate much [before] 1992. That’s what you’re gonna be interested in, and that’s what you’re gonna want to play.
I was always curious, thanks to a guy giving me a bunch of tapes when I was 12 years old. … He said, “You know, if you’re gonna be a fiddle player, you really oughta listen to this.” He had, like, bluegrass, swing and jazz fiddle playing. I mean, all this stuff that I’d never heard before. After that, I really got curious as far as trying to go back and find what people were influenced by.
The name Flamekeeper suggests the idea of keeping the flame of tradition alive. How’d you arrive at that word for what you were doing?
We were looking for a title for that first album, and I’m terrible with naming songs or albums or anything like that. … [Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin] said, “Well, how ‘bout this for an album title: Flamekeeper?” I didn’t like it, and I ran it by my dad, and he didn’t like it — until the thing came out. And then it grew on us, and we named the band after that album title.
I think it’s a good name for what we do. We do play traditional bluegrass, but at the same time, we try not to be so traditional in our playing style. We try to pay tribute to our influences and all that, but we branch out a little more instrumentally.
Hearing “Orange Blossom Special” was what made you want to pick up the fiddle in the first place. Why’d you wait until now to record it?
Well, the thing is, “Orange Blossom Special” is kind of a dreaded tune for all fiddle players. … I must’ve played it a million times. When I was little, that was my favorite song. I was fascinated with it. But I never did think of recording it, especially in the past 15 years, just because it had been overdone. … We kept getting requests for it at the record table. We’d do it on our live shows sometimes. And the possibilities for that are just endless.
Your version is pretty playful, the way you dance around and build anticipation with the intro before launching in. You also recorded a version of Benny Martin’s very playful song “Me and My Fiddle.” What role do you feel a sense of humor plays in your playing?
I think a sense of humor plays a role in all music. There’s a lot of subtlety that goes on. And it’s hard to explain, but you can just tell when somebody’s really having fun with what they do. … You’ll hear a guitar player wailing on some solo, and then they’ll just throw in some musical joke or some casual lick that you go, “Oh, yeah, that’s from such-and-such classic song.”
As far as “Me and My Fiddle” and Benny Martin are concerned, there was a guy that lived in Louisville that was a cousin of Benny Martin. … I got to where I was asking him all these questions about Benny Martin. Finally he goes, “You know, why don’t you just call him? Here’s his number.”
I called him just out of the blue one Sunday, man, and he didn’t know me from Adam. Here’s a 12-year-old kid just yapping one question after another. He was really kind to me. He answered all the questions that I had and even wrote a quote for a real early CD of mine. He’s always been one of my fiddle heroes.
And Benny Martin had two ways of playing the song. He had a version that he would do on a regular fiddle, a four-string fiddle.
And then the eight-string.
Yes. And the eight-string is something not a lot of people know that he came up with. …. We bring that out at shows, and they’re like, “Man, where did you come up with that?”
An original song on this album, “Fiddlin’ Joe,” made me think of “Cotton Eyed Joe.” They’re both about fiddlers traveling around and playing for dances. Do you identify with that?
Well, you know I played for one dance. And I know that’s odd for a fiddle player. An actual square dance, I only played for one of those, and I thought my arm was gonna fall off. The thing is, you play for a square dance, and you play these tunes for a long time for everybody to get through all the moves and everything else. Boy, it’s a workout.