It comes as no surprise that Michael Cleveland, nine-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddler of the Year Award, is considered one of the premier bluegrass musicians of his generation. After picking up the fiddle at age 4, Michael’s musical momentum began to propel him forward towards early success. He debuted at the Opry as a guest of Alison Krauss and was hand picked for the IBMA Bluegrass Youth Allstars before he was 14. His blistering prowess and technical fluency have since marked him as a sought-after guest, leading to performances with Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, The Mark Newton Band, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Audie Blaylock and Redline, and Dale Ann Bradley in recent years. However, it wasn’t until 2006, when Michael formed his band Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, that he found the right vehicle for his musical vision. Since then, the band has earned numerous IBMA awards and nominations, toured extensively throughout the US and internationally, and achieved the number one slot on Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction’s Most Played Albums chart for their second release Fired Up. Now, with the release of On Down the Line , their third album and first for new label home Compass Records, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper are poised to add fuel to the fire they’ve already sparked in the bluegrass world.
Although Michael is squarely cemented as a bluegrass musician, he wasn’t always a fierce fiddler, originally starting his training in the classical Suzuki method. But Cleveland had always known his true calling. “When I started taking lessons at age 4,” he remembers, “I told the teacher right up front that I wanted to learn how to play bluegrass and I wanted to play ‘Orange Blossom Special.'” Reluctant as they were, his teachers quickly found reason to his rhyme, helping him progress to the point when, at age 9, Michael was invited to sit in with the legendary Bill Monroe at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. Soon after, he brought his virtuosic style to the Opry, A Prairie Home Companion, and the U.S. Congress, and hasn’t rested since, constantly looking for new ways to push himself and his music forward.
Three albums into their career as a band, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper have hit their stride with On Down the Line. At the core of Flamekeeper’s approach is trying to find the balance between honoring bluegrass music’s founding fathers while still breaking new ground. The band’s desire to look outward for new ideas and songs while still staying rooted in bluegrass is readily apparent on the new project. The lead off track is a cover of Julian Lennon’s song “Too Late For Goodbyes” and the jaw dropping instrumental trades and racing tempo make this such a perfect fit in bluegrass that it’s hard to imagine the song had a life outside of the genre. As Michael says: “We do want to keep within the traditional way of doing things. But I don’t want to be so traditional that you play only traditional licks. My feeling is that if you’re jamming, and you think of something, no matter where it came from, you play it.” Several original songs from Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Biography – 2014 guitarist Josh Richards found their way on to the project, most notably the neo-classic “Johnny Thompson.” Additionally, the CD includes an imaginative re-working of Tex Logan’s classic fiddle tune “Come Along, Jody” and the instantly appealing “Fiddlin’ Joe” which Mark Brinkman penned especially for Michael. There is also a gorgeous solo fiddle rendition of “Jack of Diamonds” and, as a tip of the hat to Michael’s initial inspiration for learning to play the fiddle, a blistering version of “Orange Blossom Special.”
Flamekeeper’s rich blend and tight harmonies stem from the band’s palpable camaraderie, its members’ friendships stretching way back to jam sessions in front of the Henryville, Indiana community center, where mandolinist Nathan Livers first played with the twelve year-old Cleveland with guitarist Josh Richards eventually joining in. Less than a decade later, band-member Glenn Gibson sat in on banjo and Dobro with Cleveland’s Blue Hollow Band, converting the then-skeptical Cleveland to a Dobro fan. “I’d never heard Dobro playing like that in my life and I gained a whole new appreciation for the instrument,” says Michael of that night in Louisville. Although bassist Tyler Griffith was the last to play with Michael, Nathan and Josh had picked with Tyler on several occasions and had raved about his playing, which grounds the fiery licks of this tightly-knit group.
The Atlanta Times gets down to the brass tacks of it; “Cleveland is as versatile as they come, but when it comes to straight-up bluegrass, whether it’s a ‘boot stomper’ or a high- and-lonesome lament, his peers are few and far between.” Clearly, this fiery fiddler’s story is just beginning and, as On Down the Line demonstrates, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper’s future preserving and innovating the bluegrass tradition has never been brighter.