Michael Cleveland is generally associated with fiery, traditional-leaning fiddle playing – often the faster and more attention-grabbing, the better. While his latest album from Compass Records, Lovin’ of the Game, goes a long way to continue showcasing his expertise at the traditional style, Cleveland also brings in a number of genre-stretching musicians, creating an energetic record absolutely packed with music.
Though Cleveland states he often has no real direction when planning his albums, there was obviously plenty of forethought put into this recording. The songs flow into each other nicely, with Cleveland’s rock solid fiddling the common theme between them all. A few obviously lean more toward classic bluegrass and others incorporate a more modern, melodic style, but listeners should thoroughly enjoy Cleveland’s arrangements of everything from bluegrass standards to southern rock and ’70s folk. With a who’s who of bluegrass superstars accompanying him, this is an album not to be missed.
An early single from the album, Sunny Days are Comin’ Once Again, is a fun, bouncy number that could have been swiped from the famous O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (particularly thanks to Dan Tyminski’s mandolin and banjo from Justin Moses). Cleveland found the song through a recording collaboration several years ago with the track’s songwriter, Greg Poulos. I Wish I Knew Now What I Knew Then also has a classic feel, though in a different direction – it’s a stone cold country weeper, sung by Vince Gill with a tear in his voice. Justin Moses’s dobro matches well with Cleveland’s weeping fiddle to add to the lonesomeness.
On the somewhat more adventurous side of things are songs like For Your Love, a quick-paced collaboration with Billy Strings. It opens with interesting slap bass from Alan Bartram, and eventually turns into a furious guitar and fiddle showdown. Contact is an intricate instrumental composed by Cleveland featuring Béla Fleck on banjo, Cody Kilby on guitar, and Barry Bales on bass, in addition to Cleveland’s fiddle and mandolin. Though the number – and its intense syncopation – is a bold venture and will be a treat for musicians to listen to, the truly attention-grabbing part of the song is the way it was recorded. According to Cleveland, he had learned to use ProTools recording software from Matt Carson, another visually-impaired musician, and he used that knowledge to mix the track bit by bit with each musician’s part recorded individually, and no actual live interaction.
While many of the songs rely on Cleveland’s well-known friends to provide vocals and instrumentation, Cleveland called on his band, Flamekeeper, to record several tracks. By doing so, Cleveland said he hopes his band members – who certainly prove themselves talented and up to the task – will find some well-earned recognition. Among the top tracks featuring Flamekeeper are the bright title track, which closes the album, and One Horse Town, a Blackberry Smoke song given alt-country vibes by Cleveland. The former is a up-tempo update of Judy Collins’s folk cut from the 1970s, completely reinventing the song into radio-friendly bluegrass. Flamekeeper’s lead vocalist Josh Richards shares singing duties with Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr on the latter, creating a desperate, lonesome ode to life in a town too small to escape.
Cleveland is one of the most virtuosic musicians in bluegrass today, and he has given it his all on Lovin’ of the Game. There’s a little something for everyone here, and all of it is exquisitely performed.