When it comes to traditional bluegrass fiddling, it’s pretty hard to improve on the classic renditions from such seminal stylists as Benny Martin, Bobby Hicks, and Kenny Baker. But some eight years ago, as I was listening from a distance to Rhonda Vincent’s band at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Maine, I heard a fiddle break that made me jump up out of my comfortable lawn chair and run right over to the side of the stage for a closer look. It was a young blind fiddler who held his bow like a club and dug into the strings with pure, unrestrained joy. Rhonda introduced him as Michael Cleveland and I made a mental note to keep an eye out for him. Apparently, I was not alone. In 2001, he was voted the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddle Player of the Year and he has won that honor no less than five times since.
When I saw him recently at the 2008 Thomas Point festival, he was leading his own band, Flamekeeper. “Flamekeeper” is an appropriate name; Michael not only keeps the bluegrass flame alive but pours more fuel on the fire with each stroke of his bow. I could hear hints of Scotty Stoneman and Sam Bush in his set-closing rendition of “Lee Highway Blues,” but Michael has grown into a stylist in his own right, putting his own exuberant stamp on every solo he takes.
I had a chance to chat with Michael after his fiddle workshop at Thomas Point Beach and again at the February 2009 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham, Massachusetts.
You mentioned in your workshop that you got started at age four. Was that your idea or your parents’?
It was my idea entirely. My grandparents were fans of bluegrass music and they actually helped run the bluegrass association in Kendallville, Indiana for many years. But even before that started, they were huge fans of the music and even when I was very little, they used to take me to all the bluegrass jams and open stage shows and all that kind of thing.
When you were one and two, that little?
Yeah, yeah. And they had all kinds of bluegrass records and eight-track tapes. That was when eight-track tapes were it, you know. So I’ve been listening to bluegrass for as long as I can remember. The first time I heard fiddle, or really paid attention to a fiddle, I heard a fiddle player play “Orange Blossom Special” and I knew I’d just have to learn how to play it.
How old were you then?
I guess I must have been about three or four. So my parents enrolled me in a Suzuki program and I started learning the Suzuki method but I really wanted to learn bluegrass even then. So I kept going to the jams and shows and all that kind of thing and just tried to pick up what bluegrass I could by ear and then there were lots of good fiddle players around.
You weren’t able to read music, so you had to learn by ear –– even classical music. But the rest of the [Suzuki] class was reading music, right?
No this was the Kentucky School for the Blind. We all learned by ear.
So it was a completely ear-taught classical program that you were in.
Yes, and it doesn’t exist at the school any more that I know of. The classical teacher was Dorothy Nollan and she was a very excellent teacher. The classical program really helped me a lot with being able to listen and developing my ear.
You were originally taught with a classical bow hold, then?
Yeah, I remember holding it that way for a while. I fell into this [current way of holding the bow] with bluegrass.
You definitely like to use doublestops a lot.
Yeah, I listen to Bobby Hicks and Dale Potter, Benny Martin, Kenny Baker, and they all use them. And a lot of others, too. Yeah, I love doublestops.
Do you have some licks that you can call definitely your own, that you know no one else has played?
You know, I’ve had licks that I’ve thought that about, and then I’ll be listening to a record and then it’s, “Oh well, that ain’t mine!” It’ll be somebody else’s. But, you know, I may have some. You never can tell. You think you might have created something and then you find out that so-and-so did it, you know, thirty years ago. I just kind of play what I hear. I play what I feel at that time. I may work out a break and get on stage and play another break totally different from what I worked out.
On “Lee Highway Blues,” you keep throwing more and more things into it. It seems like you could go on forever with that tune.
Oh, man, that’s a fun tune to play, really. It’s all just doing it every day. You know, you might think of something different to play, some different licks on different days. It’s not all thought out or choreographed or anything like that.
You must have worked those variations out at some point? When you were starting out?
I don’t know. I just tried to learn the melody of the tune. Yeah, maybe when I was very little. But then I got to the point where I could improvise. I would even do it then, improvise, you know. But you fall down, you know.
Even when you were little, you liked to improvise?
Oh, yeah. Even when I was little, I would screw it up. I screwed it up then and I screw it up now! You know, but you get back up and you do it. As far as fiddle players go, I would rather hear somebody who would try something that they thought up at that spur of the moment rather than working something out and playing it the same way every day. On the other hand, there’s people like Kenny Baker. I’ve got tons of Bill Monroe live shows from the ’70s and Baker played it the same way every time. But he was consistent. I have never heard Kenny Baker mess up! Never. And that’s the beauty about his playing. He had it all worked out, you know, and he had it planned. Now I can’t do that. If I thought of playing something, it won’t happen that way. But it didn’t matter what was going on. It didn’t matter if a bomb went off. Kenny Baker was going to play “Muleskinner Blues.” Kenny Baker, I think, had the best bow hand ever.
What’s the latest thing you’ve learned on the fiddle?
I kinda been listening to Kenny Baker, just memorizing some of his backup licks and breaks and stuff like that. And I’m kinda on a Dale Potter kick. I’m trying to learn as much of that stuff as I possibly can. Yeah, different things, different days.
[For the full text of this interview, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[Flamekeeper currently consists of Jesse Brock on mandolin, Darrell Webb on lead vocals and guitar, Marshall Wilborn on bass, and 18-year old Jesse Baker on banjo. Check out their website at www.flamekeeperband.com for their touring schedule and recordings.]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle and mandolin with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]