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Michael Cleveland Grabs Grammy Nom for (Not Quite) Solo Album

Jan 3, 2020

Michael Cleveland Grabs Grammy Nom for (Not Quite) Solo Album

Michael Cleveland is one of the defining fiddlers of his generation, known for his incredibly quick licks, deep groove, and shiver-inducing double stops. His virtuosity has been recognized by artists from many different genres and their thoughtful collaborations have proven that Cleveland is much more than just a flashy fiddler.

His talents were recognized at a young age by many of bluegrass music’s biggest stars and as a teenager he appeared as their guest in such settings as the Grand Ole Opry and A Prairie Home Companion. As one of the most-awarded musicians in IBMA history, Cleveland invited many of his heroes to collaborate on his 2019 album, Tall Fiddler. The project will compete for Best Bluegrass Album at the Grammy Awards on January 26.

Unlike many solo albums, Tall Fiddler features Cleveland’s band Flamekeeper throughout. Half of the record features selections from their popular touring show while the other half features Cleveland and band playing with masters such as Tim O’Brien, Béla Fleck, and Tommy Emmanuel. The origin of many of these collaborations were explored in Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story, a documentary detailing his journey, from being born blind to forming Flamekeeper.

Cleveland spoke to BGS by phone from his home in Indiana.

BGS: I wanted to ask you what it feels like to be nominated for a Grammy, but I have to imagine it feels pretty good! What does it mean to you?

MC: Well it’s pretty exciting! The last time I was nominated I thought I’d go through the list just to see who’s actually won and who’s been nominated in the past and it is mind-blowing for me to be considered.

And then to be nominated with the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys — I’ve known Jeremy Brown since he was probably a baby. None of my family ever played music, but my grandparents had a bluegrass association in Henryville, Indiana, which is just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. So we got a lot of bands come out of the Louisville area and from other parts of Indiana. Jeremy’s dad, Tommy Brown, used to play with a band called Jim Simpson and the Kentucky Mountain Grass and it was one of the best bands in the area. Whenever they came to Henryville it was an event.

When they broke up Tommy formed his own band called Tommy Brown and the County Line Grass and I would see Jeremy playing on stage with his dad when he was a little kid. I’ve known all those guys for a while and have a connection with them so it’s really cool to be nominated at the same time as them and all the other artists.

Tall Fiddler is your eighth album. What makes this album stand out from the others?

This album was a little different because it wasn’t strictly a solo album or a band album. I wanted to do something where I could collaborate with other people, but I wanted my band to be on the album as well. It’s just a killer band, they’re who I tour with all the time, and I wanted to hear what they would do with the guests. So the band is on half the album and then there’s special guests on the other half.

We did the title cut, “Tall Fiddler,” with Tommy Emmanuel. That was especially cool because we got to do that live in the studio. Tommy came in and we had never played with him. We’d just worked this up based on a recording of his called Live! at the Ryman where he had played it. So Tommy comes in the studio and I think we knocked that out in just a few takes. It’s a dream come true for me, because I want to see my band collaborate with people like that.

Like Josh [Richards] singing with Del McCoury and getting to play with Tommy, and Dan Tyminski, and Jerry Douglas. The guys in my band are great players and deserve to play with people like that. That’s always been a goal of mine and for my career — to get to collaborate with as many great musicians and heroes of mine as I can. And that’s been possible because of this album and the Flamekeeper documentary, you know? Like, I’ve gotten to record with Béla Fleck.

Yeah, tell me about “Tarnation” and how that track came about.

When we made the Flamekeeper documentary we did some of the filming in Nashville. We got Del, Sam [Bush], Béla, Todd Phillips, and some other people that I’ve worked with in the past to be a part of it. John Presley, the producer of the documentary, said “I think it’d be cool to hear you play some of these guys’ music,” and I said “Yeah, that’d be great!”

We had just got done filming a lot of stuff and I was messing around and started playing a little bit of one of those tunes and Béla’s like, “Oh, you learned that? Let’s play it!” and after that he asked if I liked learning tunes and I told him I love learning new stuff and he said, “I’ll give you a call and maybe we can do something together.”

So then, when I was working on this record I reached out to him and I asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on something and I said “I would love for it to be something that you and I could write together.” He agreed, so we sent stuff back and forth for a while, like voice memos of ideas, and then he came up with that slow part in the beginning — which I really liked, it’s really bluesy. He asked if I could come down to his house to finish working on it.

To be able to go to Béla Fleck’s house and write a song with him. I mean, that’s something I would never dream that I would be able to do. But it’s cool for me to get to be around all these people that we worked with on this album. The thing that strikes me is not only that they’re incredible musicians — needless to say — but their whole [personalities]. They’re great people. They’re just having fun playing music, you know?

You’ve always struck me as a versatile musician because of your ability to collaborate with so many different artists and complement the style while still sounding like yourself. Like how you play on Andy Statman’s Superstring Theory album, for example.

See, that’s the thing. I’ve loved traditional bluegrass for a long time and would mostly just listen to that. But there’s so much music out there that I still haven’t heard that’s classic stuff to other people. I just started listening to Boston and they are awesome! My girlfriend says I live under a rock. But a lot of the music I play in places like Nashville, I don’t really have a whole lot of chances for experimentation. With someone like Andy [Statman] there’s no holds barred. Whenever Andy plays a song it’s going to be different every time.

I have noticed in your live shows that it seems like you’ve been experimenting with having a song or two with an extended solo section that’s a little more open ended than traditional bluegrass might be.

Yeah we’re trying to incorporate more of that because I think the audience like to see something and think, “Oh, this is not what happens every day.” And it’s a fine line because I’ve always been of the mind that you practice, you know the arrangements, and that’s what you play. Maybe you don’t play what’s on the record the whole time but you play it pretty close and you play that every day and that makes it good. And it does.

I always like to hear live recordings for the differences. Like when someone plays a different solo or somebody misses a note but it’s OK; it’s alive. It’s authentic. And it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that it’s music. It’s not supposed to be perfect. When we do the extended solos, that’s when I really pull out stuff and think of things that I would never play. If all you did was just play that arrangement every time and make it as perfect as possible, you might never be able to experience that.

I went to MerleFest one year and I came away thinking [about] all these guys like Sam [Bush], and the McCourys, and Béla, and Tim O’Brien, and Doc Watson. All these people are great instrumentalists and great old-time bluegrass players but they all do so much more than that. And just because somebody’s plugged in, and turned up loud, and improvises, that doesn’t mean they don’t know their stuff when it comes to traditional bluegrass.

Photo Credit: Stacie Huckeba

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Michael Cleveland Grabs Grammy Nom for (Not Quite) Solo Album
Michael Cleveland Grabs Grammy Nom for (Not Quite) Solo Album