With October 7 set as the release date for Fiddler’s Dream, Michael Cleveland’s first solo record in ten years time, we took advantage of an opportunity to speak with Michael about the new album, and what has changed for him artistically over the past decade.
Though he has released a number of projects with his band, Flamekeeper, his last solo, fiddle album was Let ‘Er Go Boys in 2006. That year was the start of Michael’s amazing run of IBMA Awards, seeing him take the Fiddle Player of the Year trophy for the next six years.
Cleveland said that it was his label, Compass Records that suggested that the next album be a solo project, and his to mix the tracks between fiddle and mandolin tunes.
“I’ve been wanting to do a solo CD for a long time, and have been getting more into tune writing lately, but hadn’t found time to record one. Compass suggested the idea this time around.
I used to write one every once in a while and, aside from a couple I recorded, I hadn’t written a lot. What really got me into songwriting was when I did a record with Tim O’Brien and Andy Statman. Andy writes such amazing songs – he can write any kind of songs at all. One will be a free form jazz tune, then one that sounds like a Kenny Baker fiddle tune, and then next a surf rock tune.
I got talking with him about how he wrote all these tunes, and he said ‘The way I do it is, when I figure out I’m going to record, I’ll take some time a couple weeks before the studio time and start writing.’ I was thinking… man, it would be cool to write more. Meeting Andy was a really motivational experience in that way.”
Michael included one cut with Statman on Fiddler’s Dream, a duet on a tune of Andy’s called Nashville Storms. The soloing is manic, as you might expect, with Statman’s trademark moan clearly audible in the background.
But for Cleveland, writing on demand never worked as well. I asked him about one especially lively fiddle number he had written for the album, Sunday Drive, to get an idea how he created it.
“I can sit down to write a song and sometimes do it that way, but it takes me a lot longer. But Sunday Drive, I was just sitting around playing and heard the first part of that tune in my head. I do that a lot, and when I get something, I record little pieces into my phone. I had just gotten a fiddle back from the shop, and was sitting down in the basement playing in that Black Mountain Rag cross tuning, and that tune came into my mind. I rote the whole tune that day.
I wrote Lonesome Desert the same way in between shows at Dollywood a couple of years ago. I usually write songs on mandolin, and I’ve always been a fan of Bill Monroe’s music. I wanted to come up with something pretty like the stuff Statman writes.”
Fiddler’s Dream offers a couple of vocal songs as well, including a stellar version of John Hartford’s Steamboat Whistle Blues with Sam Bush singing lead. I wondered if Michael was a big Hartford fan.
“Oh man, I love John Hartford. I didn’t really get into his music until later on. A good friend of mine, banjo player Brian Lever, grew up listening to the more progressive bluegrass, while my background was more traditional. For a long time all I wanted to hear was traditional, but he played me some John Hartford from Aereo-Plain, with Benny Martin and Sam Bush, and I always liked how his records sounded fun – really creative stuff.
Getting ready to record, we were trying to find a song for Sam to sing, and knew that we wanted to do a Hartford song, since Sam had that connection. We wanted to find one that was a bit more obscure, and finally [producer] Jeff White just asked Sam which one he would want to do, and he said Steamboat Whistle Blues.
It turned out that Compass Studio where we were working used to be another studio, Hillbilly Central, and it’s where Hartford recorded that originally. Very cool to hear Sam telling stories about John and Vassar back in the day.”
Another vocal comes from Jason Carter, fiddler with The Del McCoury Band, on Where Is Your Heart Tonight. It’s an old country song from Bordeaux Bryant, Robert Castelo, and Benny Martin. A great many bluegrass fans don’t know how well Jason sings classic country music, unless they’ve heard him do so with The Travelin’ McCourys.
He also does some twin fiddling with Michael, including a rip-roarin’ take on Bill Monroe’s Tall Timber.
“Jason and I have the same heroes, and listen to the same stuff, and we’ve had a few times where we did twin stuff with no rehearsal. It’s just really easy to play twin with him. We’ve talked about maybe doing an album of twin fiddle together someday.
Tall Timber is one we’ve played together live before. We just winged it for the recording, since we had played it so many times.”
Another strong tune of Michael’s on the album is Henryville, also featuring Cleveland and Jason twinning. It also has something of a Monroe feel.
“Henryville is the town I’m from in Indiana, and wasn’t very well known until the tornado of 2012 which pretty much put it on the map. All my people are from there. Everyone in my family were huge bluegrass fans, even though none of them played. They loved the music, and wanted to start a place where people could come and learn to play on stage. For many years, it was the place in our area.
This song makes me picture one of the big parking lot jams about 1:00 am at Henryville. I usually have trouble coming up with titles, but this one came to me right away. I think that Bill Monroe’s Stoney Lonesome really inspired me to write this.”
Another original has an old time country sound, and Micahel says he crowdsourced the title when he blanked on an idea.
“I Knew Her Yesterday is one I’ve had for a while, five years or so. While we were working on the record, I started playing this tune out with the band, and I would say that if anyone could come up with a good name, please come up and tell me. That is the one I liked best.”
Cleveland chose a core band that would give him a strong, traditional vibe without sounding like Flamekeeper, his touring group. Sam Bush is on mandolin except when Michael is playing it, with Jeff White on guitar, Barry Bales on bass, and Lloyd Douglas on banjo. Jeff Guernsey adds lead guitar on several tracks, as does Jerry Douglas on reso-guitar.
“All these guys I had worked with in the past. I always think how much fun it would be to play with certain other guys. I had been thinking about this for a few years, and it didn’t seem like the kind of things the band would do.
Lloyd is an old friend. He spent some time on the road with the Warrior River Boys in the late ’90s. Then he went with Jim & Jesse, and Jesse for a while after Jim passed. He’s a conductor with the railroad, good job and lovely family. He’s always the guy I call when I need someone to fill in. He’s one of the best kept secret in bluegrass.
Same deal with Jeff Guernsey. He and I grew up in the same town. He’s always been my musical hero. He’s an all-around monster musician – plays everything with strings on it. He’s my musical hero – he has so much musical knowledge. Can play within any style.”
Michael’s team released this preview video last week where Michael discusses some of these same questions on camera.
Pre-orders for Fiddler’s Dream are being accepted now online.