Unless you’ve been sleeping under a log since Bill Monroe last stepped on a stage, you know that Michael Cleveland is one of the best fiddle players to call bluegrass home. But if you weren’t at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival last week in southcentral Pennsylvania, there are two things you might not know about him.
First, Michael has a wicked sense of humor and often turns it on himself. When I caught up with him backstage Friday, he said Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper “has been busier than ever this year.” I asked why, expecting to hear something about the improving economy or some such thing. Instead, with a straight face and a solemn tone, he said, “I don’t know what it is. Maybe we got better.”
Later, while sweltering in the heat, guitarist-vocalist Josh Richards joked that as soon as the set was over, he was going to change into a Speedo and dive into the pool that’s just off one side of the stage.
Without missing a beat, Cleveland said, “Sometimes I’m glad I can’t see. This is one of those times.”
The second revelation is that if Mike didn’t have a fiddle, he could make a pretty good living playing the mandolin. The Gettysburg crowd got to witness his chops on the eight string early in the set. He broke a fiddle string on the first song, then played Nathan Livers’ mandolin for a couple of numbers while Nathan went offstage to restring the fiddle. It was well worth hearing.
Fans will be pleased to know that a new Compass Records CD is in the works. Michael will be heading into the studio this fall. There are no details yet, but he promises the project will be “a little outside the box.” The recording will feature the band on some songs and guest artists on others.
Maybe Michael can guest on the mandolin for a song!
When I first met Keith Garrett in 2010, the former Blue Moon Rising frontman was at a CD release party with his new bandmates, The Boxcars. He was still teaching high school chemistry, imagining the day that his music career would take off and he could leave the classroom.
Eight years later, he’s still teaching. But that’s more a commentary on the willingness of school administrators to work with him than a reflection on his music. Garrett, playing at Gettysburg with the Highland Travelers, said the school allows him to work a flexible schedule with an opportunity to make up for missed days.
Garrett calls the arrangement the best of both worlds. He said he has no plans to retire from the classroom anytime soon. And why would he? He surely has an inside track on winning the faculty talent show every year.
During our first meeting, at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Nashville, I asked Keith an obvious question about one of his songs on the Boxcars’ self-titled debut. The song: Never Played the Opry. No, he said, slowly shaking his head, he never had played there.
Happily, that has changed. He’s been on the fabled stage three times…and counting.
I’m in awe of bands and musicians that go to extremes to play, driving for hours at a time, playing a set or two, then heading back on the highway. It always reminds me of a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Same Auld Lang Syne: “I said the audience was heavenly, but the traveling was hell.”
Last week at Gettysburg, my unofficial road warrior prize was earned by the Trinity River Band. The Florida-based family band played in South Carolina on Friday, then drove through the night to make an 11:00 a.m. appearance Saturday at Gettysburg. Dad Mike Harris and son Joshua split the driving. The others took turns sleeping a bit, but a half hour before show time, they were all clearly exhausted.
But when they stepped on stage, none of that mattered. They picked, sang and smiled through a tight, energetic set.
“The music business never sleeps,” Sarah Harris-Hall said on stage. “And neither do we sometimes.”
After the set, Joshua Harris mused, “Maybe we should go without sleep more often. We didn’t have time to think about it. We just got up there and played.”
And when the set was over, mom Lisa Harris and daughters Sarah and Brianna hurried away to conduct a workshop. Following the second set, they headed off to North Carolina, where they were booked at a Sunday church service.
When the travel schedule eases this winter, the band will work on an all-Gospel CD that will come out sometime in early 2019.
We’ll have loads of photos from the festival as well, starting later this afternoon.