Flamekeeper documentary premieres in Nashville

Cortland Ingram, Michael Cleveland, and John Presley at the Flamekeeper premiere – photo by Peyton Hoge

To celebrate the upcoming streaming release of Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville hosted a star-studded premiere on February 12. Many of Music City’s bluegrass and country music icons turned up for a first look at the documentary film chronicling the life and musical career of one of the music’s most highly regarded fiddlers.

Though born totally blind, Michael has become the hottest thing in the world of fiddle, winning the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year award an astounding 11 times, with six trophies for their Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year as well. He plays with an intensity that is riveting to behold, bearing down with the bow in a way that seems almost possessed, while delivering a gorgeous tone with impeccable intonation.

Cleveland was on hand for the premiere, along with filmmakers John Presley and Cortlandt Ingram. Also present were some of Cleveland’s fellow musicians who were interviewed in the film, like Béla Fleck and Sam Bush, and a number of interested luminaries like Ricky Skaggs, Becky Buller, and The Whites.

Michael’s family provided a wealth of photos and movie clips of him as a child, which viewers agreed nicely personalized the documentary. Party of its focus is on the difficulties that ensue to trying to properly educate an unsighted child, which becomes a big part of the film.

Presley shared how the process of directing the film led him to a new appreciation of what the blind live with day to day, and how it colored the way he completed the project.

“I learned that our visually impaired friends see the world in an entirely different way. One of my goals was to create a film that Michael would be able to experience and enjoy through sound alone.” 

Cleveland says it still blows his mind a little bit that he is the subject of a project like this, but imagines how it might have affected him as a youngster to see a story like this.

“When I was first approached about the idea of a documentary film about me, I was definitely surprised, and it still seems so surreal. For as long as I’ve been playing music professionally, I have made it a point to keep the focus on the music and not the fact that I am visually impaired. I decided that if I was going to have a career in music, I wanted to make it on my abilities as a musician and not the fact that I was blind. After I talked to John and took a few days to think it over and run it by my family and the rest of the Flamekeeper team, I realized that this could be an inspiration to some young kid somewhere with a dream that looks as impossible as it seemed to me when I was growing up and dreaming of a career in music.”

Here’s a look at the trailer for the documentary, which will be available through online streaming platforms like Amazon on March 1.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.