Few musicians garner the universal respect of Michael Cleveland. A child prodigy, Michael won the hearts of the entire bluegrass industry in 1993 as a member of the IBMA Youth All-Stars. Since that time, he has gone on to perform and record with nearly everyone in the business, picking up nine IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year awards along the way. He is, without a doubt, one of the premiere fiddle players of his generation, if not in all of bluegrass history.
Michael and his band, Flamekeeper, have one of the busiest tour schedules in bluegrass. Their energetic stage shows always leave the crowd on their feet, and if you’ve ever seen them at a bluegrass festival, you’ll know he has more fun than anyone else there.
Flamekeeper’s latest album for Compass Records, On Down The Line is the band’s first in over three years, and it was worth the wait.
As to be expected when one of the world’s best fiddle players is the frontman, the album is quite fiddle-centric. The first single, Fiddlin’ Joe is a fun little song, written by Mark “Brink” Brinkman. The song seems somewhat biographical to Michael, the tale of “a music man” who “had the fire in his bow hand,” and is the life of every square dance in the holler!
Play us a good ‘un, Fiddlin’ Joe
Play it fast, play it slow
One more song before you go
Would you, Fiddlin’ Joe?
Play us a good ‘un, Fiddlin’ Joe
Tomorrow we’ll be feelin’ low
Tonight we wanna do-si-do
Play a good one, Fiddlin’ Joe
That is a sentiment shared by everyone who hears Michael play! Although a fiddlin’ number, Glenn Gibson’s banjo playing also stands out on this fun song. A veteran multi-instrumentalist, Glenn’s banjo and dobro work are among bluegrass’ most under-appreciated.
On Down The Line showcases the recorded debut of this edition of Flamekeeper. Having gone through several band changes since their last album, this lineup of Flamekeeper may be among the most exciting. The combination of youth and experience makes for a lot of fun music!
Josh Richards handles the majority of the lead vocal duties for the group. His smooth voice is contemporary, while still appealing to traditional fans. It’s obvious he is a fan of Tony Rice, both in his singing and guitar styling. This is particularly evident on The Sunny Side of Town, a song Richards co-wrote. With harmony vocals from Dale Ann Bradley, this pretty song is sure to ease your mind.
That Ol’ Train is one of my favorites on the album. I’m a sucker for a good train song. Something about the railroad calls to the American spirit. That Ol’ Train is straight ahead bluegrass. Tyler Griffith chugs the train engine right along with solid bass work, while Michael’s fiddle blows the lonesome fiddle. I hope this is the album’s second single, because it’s one everyone can enjoy.
Having grown up as a bluegrass fan in the Midwest, it should be no surprise that Michael is a fan of the Holts; Aubrey Holt of The Boys From Indiana and his son, Tony Holt of The Wildwood Valley Boys, both have songs on On Down The Line. Aubrey is undoubtedly one of bluegrass’ best songwriters. His ability to tell captivating stories with poetic elegance has made him an influence on most of today’s popular bluegrass songwriters. When The Warden Turns The Key was originally recorded by the Wildwood Valley Boys on their 2006 Rebel album, Daylight’s Burnin’. The story of a prisoner dreading his impending execution, this powerful song is sure to grab your attention.
Tony Holt’s Just Call Me Crazy is one of the album’s most country-flavored songs. Michael’s fiddle work and Glenn’s steel guitar-esque dobro make this song sound like a country classic from the fifties done bluegrass-style. I was shocked to find out that is wasn’t. You’ll find yourself singing this one to yourself while working outside- I know I have!
In addition to being one of our music’s top fiddle players, Michael is also one of the most knowledgeable bluegrass fiddle historians. Few artists have studied and absorbed as much music from their respective instrument as Michael has, and he salutes some of his fiddle heroes on On Down The Line.
Tackling Benny Martin’s signature song, Michael’s 8-string fiddle on Me and My Fiddle is nothing short of brilliant. Of course the use of the difficult instrument is a tip of the hat to Benny’s original version, but at first listen, it seems as if there are twin or triple fiddles on the song. Comprehending that it is one man with one instrument is hard to grasp.
As with any Michael Cleveland release, the instrumentals are the best. It’s not that the vocal numbers are subpar, but when you have the 4-time Instrumental Group of the Year led by the 9-time Fiddle Player of the Year who has nabbed numerous awards for their instrumental recordings, you want to hear them burn one up! Flamekeeper does not disappoint.
Michael salutes Tex Logan with Come Along Jody. The tune begins with awesome fiddle-mandolin duet work from Michael and Nathan Livers. Nathan’s mandolin playing is really showcased on this song, which I love. He is one of the best young mandolin players in bluegrass today, and his work on Come Along Jody should help him gain more recognition. Although the song begins with just fiddle and mandolin, the whole band joins in and everyone takes a turn before the tune finishes.
Artists are always cautioned about recording classic songs, because their new versions will be immediately compared to the signature renditions. The rule of thumb is, if you can’t do it as well or better than the original, don’t record it. This old advice is fine, but not applicable to someone like Michael Cleveland. Why? Because he is one of the few who can record songs as good or better than the original. For further proof, look no further than Flamekeeper’s version of Orange Blossom Special on On Down The Line.
Orange Blossom Special is to the fiddle as Foggy Mountain Breakdown is to the banjo. (High schoolers, look for that question on ACT tests this coming school year.) The song is liable to close hundreds of bluegrass festivals this summer. It could almost be renamed Bluegrass Grand Finale because of its standard place in a bluegrass setlist. Even though it has been played by thousands of fiddle players, no one will play it exactly like Michael Cleveland. The ferocity with which he attacks his instrument is made for a barnburner like Orange Blossom Special. Undoubtedly, Michael has received countless requests at the merch table for a recorded version of this tune. Expect Flamekeeper’s “shake-and-howdy line” to be flooded now that this fiddle classic is on the table.
Without a doubt, the album’s crowning jewel is Jack O’ Diamonds. An ancient mountain fiddle song, Michael avoids convention by recording it completely solo. The atypical choice is genius. No other tune has displayed Michael Cleveland’s mastery of the fiddle like Jack O’ Diamonds has. Just a man and his fiddle completely demands your attention. You are held paralyzed for three and a half minutes as one of the greatest talents our music has ever known displays his immense ability. Few musicians juxtapose tradition and modernity as Michael Cleveland does. The tones he is able to draw out of his instrument are breathtaking. I have written on how listening to Michael Cleveland play the fiddle is a religious experience: better than anything else, Jack O’ Diamonds showcases why.
If you need proof of a higher power, listen to Michael Cleveland play the fiddle.
photo by LuAnn Adams
Category: Music Reviews
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to receive more just like it.