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Just One: Michael Cleveland Picks His Desert Isle Fiddler

Sep 20, 2018

Just One: Michael Cleveland Picks His Desert Isle Fiddler

If you could only listen to one fiddler for the rest of your days, who would it be? We had to ask 10-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Michael Cleveland whose fiddle playing would be his desert island soundtrack. Sometimes, you only need Just One.

If you had to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island with just one fiddler’s music, who would it be and why?

If I had to spend the rest my life on a desert island with one fiddler’s music, it would be Benny Martin’s fiddle playing from 1947 to 1965. He was so far ahead of what anybody else was playing at this time, in my opinion, and he was able to pull off things that I’ve yet to hear anyone else equal. Really difficult and complicated stuff that he was just able to play like it was nothing.

Why this specific era of Benny Martin?

I feel that this time in his career was his most creative. I hear in his music from ’47 to around ’56 or so that he was constantly trying new things that hadn’t been done before. For example, he was the first fiddle player that I know of to ever play fifths in double stops, which created a very unique sound. You can hear this on the Flatt and Scruggs version of “Someone Took My Place With You.” Sometime in the ’50s, he also invented the eight string fiddle, which was set up sort of like a mandolin with pairs of strings really close together. But unlike the mandolin where each pair of strings are tuned in unison or to the same pitch, the pairs on Benny’s eight string were tuned in harmony to each other, which allowed him to play four notes simultaneously. What a big sound! I heard Benny say in an interview that he came up with the idea after he heard Bill Monroe tune his mandolin in an alternate tuning for the song “Get Up John.”

What’s something about Benny Martin that you wish more people knew about?

I think a lot of people know of Benny as a great fiddler, which he most definitely was, but a lot of people don’t realize that he also was an incredible singer and songwriter. In the mid ’50s, after playing with Flatt and Scruggs and the country duo Johnnie & Jack, Benny was signed to Mercury records and started recording and touring as a country artist and later on, he was even managed by Colonel Tom Parker, the same guy who managed Elvis Presley for most of his career.

Do you have a favorite way of paying homage to Benny in your own playing?

One of the many things that I really like about Benny’s playing was the sense of fun and excitement he could create in the music. That’s what I tried to duplicate. Also his timing was impeccable! I have listened to many live recordings where the band was all over the place, or not playing together well at all, but when Benny came out and started playing with them, it sounded like a whole different band! His timing and groove were such that he could change and elevate whoever he played with and make the band play with him. Now that’s easier to do if you are a guitar or mandolin player, because those are rhythm instruments, but to do it with a fiddle? Now that’s awesome!

Now, what if you had to choose just one of Benny’s tunes to listen to while you eat coconuts on that desert isle?

If I had to choose one of Benny’s songs to listen to, it would have to be “Me and My Fiddle.” It has it all! The awesome and oh-so-complicated double stops, the incredible timing and syncopation, and everything else that is Benny Martin!


Photo courtesy of the artist.

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Just One: Michael Cleveland Picks His Desert Isle Fiddler