The entire world is learning what the bluegrass community has always known: Michael Cleveland is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Cleveland has long enjoyed critical acclaim inside the bluegrass circles he grew up in – he is a 10-time winner of the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Award – but, given this genre’s inward-facing bent, his fiery, impassioned playing has most often reached listeners and fans who are already diehard acolytes.
Now, with his sixth studio release, Lovin’ Of The Game, Cleveland’s star is objectively rising. Recent collaborations with stratospherically famous pickers like Béla Fleck and Billy Strings – both of whom appear on the new project – along with several jaw-dropping viral videos have demonstrated to the world beyond bluegrass conferences and festivals that Cleveland is worth paying attention to.
And it’s all thanks to his truly unique voice on his instrument. The American public, and roots music fans across the globe, understand rip-roaring fiddle just as well as they relate to a speedy banjo breakdown or a screaming, arena rock guitar solo. With every note Cleveland pulls from his fiddle, there’s a grit, an ease, endless emotion, and a winking sparkle that all at once conjure the aggression of Charlie Daniels and the tenderness of “Ashokan Farewell.” It’s infinitely appealing, even to uninitiated fans, and it’s a delectable gateway drug, a window into a vibrant instrumental tradition that most folks only interact with casually. With Cleveland’s playing, every listener is given permission to love the most elemental parts of bluegrass, old-time, and country music – and to feel like it’s something they discovered for themselves.
They are certainly discovering it. Six albums down and Cleveland is continuing to put one foot in front of the other, with constant innovation and enthusiasm, and a long view that envisions endless opportunities for new albums, new collaborations, and new music to be made. All the while, he’s bringing hundreds and thousands of new fans into these rootsy genres. Michael Cleveland shows all of us how much joy – and fire – can be found in the Lovin’ Of The Game.
This is your sixth studio release – it’s not a “sophomore album” or a third or fourth record, even – you’ve got quite a lot of miles under your feet at this point and have made quite a few albums. What’s your perspective at this point, looking back and looking ahead?
MC: What I wanted to show with this album and with [the last album,] Tall Fiddler, is that I still love and will always play traditional bluegrass, but I can and like to do a lot more than that. I wanted to definitely show that on this record, because a couple of people that I talked to recently – Béla Fleck being one of them, I heard Béla say in an interview, “I wasn’t really sure if Michael would want to play with me.” And I thought, “Who wouldn’t want to play with Béla Fleck!?” It’s kind of a no-brainer! I get what he’s saying, though, in the sense that a lot of people are comfortable in what they do, they’re happy doing that, and they might not want to stray too far from that. That’s not necessarily the case with me. I wanted to have some different stuff on this record, a lot of traditional bluegrass, but some things that push the envelope a little bit and let people know that I do like to do more than just straight-ahead bluegrass.
As far as straight-ahead bluegrass albums, to be quite honest with you, the albums that I did early on – like Flamekeeper and Let ‘Er Go, Boys! – as far as straight-ahead bluegrass goes, those would be my favorite albums. Not because of anything that I did on those albums, but because of the band. The bands on those albums and the groove that they play is like no other. Audie Blaylock, Jesse Brock, Jason Moore, who we recently lost last year, Tom Adams, Charlie Cushman, and people like that – I dunno if there’s a way to top those albums. We could do different material, but the groove and the feel that those guys played is like no other. So, the thing is to do something that’s a little different from that.
I view your fiddling as so innovative and cutting edge; when we hear you play, we’re hearing your musical thoughts just pouring out on your instrument. You can be couched so firmly in “tradition” and still be innovative, but then on the outside looking in, when a listener isn’t necessarily a diehard bluegrass fan, your playing can feel just traditional. Now that you’re getting well-deserved notoriety not just in bluegrass, but further afield too, how does it feel to try to show people your musical perspective when traditional bluegrass means different things to different people?
You know, that’s my favorite audience, and I think a favorite audience of my band, to play to. We like to play bluegrass festivals and we always hope to play bluegrass festivals, but man, I like to play bluegrass for people that have never heard it before. Any time I’ve ever done that it’s been well received. If it’s put in the right situation, like seeing what Billy Strings is doing now. He’s playing traditional bluegrass and thousands and thousands of people are hearing that that have never heard it before or would have never paid attention to bluegrass.
We did a couple of shows with the Louisville Orchestra here. We’re talking the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall. I think it held like, 2,400 people. And it was a full house! Some of them probably knew what bluegrass was, some of them were there to see us, but I would guess that a far larger number of people were there and probably didn’t know what bluegrass was or what to expect. It went like gangbusters! [Laughs] It really did. Any time I’ve been in a situation like that where bluegrass is presented to an audience that isn’t familiar with it, it’s great. That’s what I like to do more than anything these days.
It’s hard to look at it objectively, given that it’s me, but it gives me hope that there’s a future for bluegrass. And that it’s not just the stereotype that people think of – that it’s Deliverance. I think mainly, it’s encouraging to see new people getting into it, whether it’s me or Billy Strings or anybody else. I think that’s a good thing.
Bluegrass is so much about community, it feels like a family. Your albums are so collaborative, whether they’re centered on your band Flamekeeper or not. I sense your community represented so strongly on this record, you’re working with Jeff White producing again, you’ve got old and new friends on the record. But I also wanted to give you a chance to talk about Bill Wolf and Eddie Wells, friends of yours in music who recently passed on and you dedicated the album to.
For records like this, it’s so fun for me to not only get to collaborate with people that I’ve worked with in recent years, but to find the right song that would suit these situations. It’s one thing to have Billy Strings or somebody come in and sing something, and they could sing anything and it would be good, but to find a song that they can actually own and it sounds like something they do, that’s a little harder. My producer, Jeff White, he’s a huge help in picking songs. I have to say this time, we had a lot of good songs to choose from.
The community thing– number one, I like to get my favorite players, people that I really enjoy playing with whether they’re a “name” or not. My buddy Cody Looper, he played on “Five Points.” I love playing with Cody. He played in my band for about a year or so and he has a job where all of a sudden he wasn’t able to get time off so he had to leave the band. We all hated it, and we still keep in touch and get together to play every once in a while. Anytime I can have him on something I like to do that, because he’s just so fun to play with. Like Lloyd Douglas on Fiddler’s Dream, he played banjo on that album. Lloyd is another one of those guys that maybe not a lot of people are aware of, but he’s just as good as a lot of the people out here killing it.
It’s about who will fit the song. That’s very important to me. It’s got to fit, whoever you get on it has gotta be somebody who can contribute to the song – not just a name.
And you mentioned Bill Wolf and Eddie Wells, they’re two guys who I’ve probably known since I was really little. Oddly enough, I didn’t really get to know them until I was older. Then Bill, I think, retired from Ford around ‘96 or ‘97 when I had my local band and we started playing together. Those two guys, when I wasn’t on the road, through high school and even up until a couple of years ago, if I was hanging out and jamming at a festival or doing some local gig or having a jam at the house, those two guys would be there. I learned more about music, dynamics as a band, how to play together as a band, and singing trios from those two – Bill Wolf and Eddie Wells and my other friend Cecil Jackson, those three guys singing together was the best. They’d sing Country Gentlemen stuff like no other. I learned a lot and played a lot of music over the years with those two guys and they passed away really not too far apart from each other. I miss them a lot and I wanted to do this album in memory of them and as a way to say thanks for all I learned being around them and all the good times we had together.
One song that really jumped out at me on the record is a special version of “Temperance Reel,” which I’ve heard Luke Bulla perform over the years. I love how Luke and Tim O’Brien’s voices are blending together on the track – I love how stripped down it is. Can you talk about recording that one?
I had heard Luke Bulla sing that song a few years ago, I think it was in 2017. Jeff White and Laura White were married and Jeff asked me to be the best man at his wedding. I went down there for that and they had a rehearsal and the night of the rehearsal it was also Ronnie McCoury’s birthday, so there was a big picking party over at this house. Everybody was there. Just about everybody you can think of in Nashville who played bluegrass was there. Luke sang this song and I remember hearing it and really liking it. While working on the album, Jeff was doing a bunch of dates with Lyle Lovett and Luke was in the band. Jeff mentioned that Luke was singing “Temperance Reel” and I happened to ask, “Has he ever recorded that?” Jeff said yes, but he hadn’t released it or something like that. I knew it would sound good with three fiddles and it was my idea to keep it to just the fiddles, we just had to see if we could make it sound full enough to work.
There’s something about Luke and Tim’s voices, they’re so reedy that they really sound like they’re blending with the fiddles and the bowing.
It’s wild! I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I love not only Tim’s singing, but the part that he plays, the third part on the fiddle. It’s got this Celtic thing to it, too, that really added a lot to the whole track.
What’s next? What are you excited for? I know you’re deep in the throes of releasing this album, and you’re gaining so much momentum and getting great national press …
Man, I don’t know what’s going to come of this but we’ve never had so much go on at the time of an album release. [Laughs] I’m thrilled about what’s happening so far. It’s already so much more than we would have dreamed of. It will be cool to see what happens.
I do a lot of session work here at the house, people hire me to work on tracks and I’ve got a studio at home, so I record pretty much every day that I’m home. And the band has a pretty busy summer lined up and I’ve got some more dates with Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart coming. Lots of stuff going on! And I’m working on some new projects that hopefully we’ll be able to tell you about pretty soon.
Photo credit: Amy Richmond