Michael Cleveland talks Tall Fiddler

Michael Cleveland is one of the premiere fiddlers of his generation. Along with his award-winning band, Flamekeeper, Michael has been firing up bluegrass fans with hot picking for nearly two decades. With his stellar new album, Tall Fiddler, Michael looks to expand his music, and in the process, introduce bluegrass to new audiences.

The depth of material on Tall Fiddler is impressive. How did you go about selecting songs for this record?

You know come to think of it, other than the original songs, most of the material came from either the guys in the band, or my producer Jeff White. I’m pretty sure Nathan was the one that played Mountain Heartache for us all, and we were blown away by it! Josh wrote the song Me and Helen, and he has been singing that one for a while. For the special guests who collaborated on the album, I definitely wanted it to be more of a collaboration, rather than they just come in and back me up on something, so when we were sending songs back-and-forth, we definitely were wanting their opinion on what they felt good about doing.

Stylistically, the new album has such a variety. How did you achieve such a wide swath of styles, while consistently keeping it a Michael Cleveland album?

Well the goal for this album was to show that I definitely enjoy playing other styles of music. I will always love bluegrass, but I’m not just a bluegrass player. Especially in the last few years or so, I have been trying to push myself and seek out other situations where I can play different styles of music, and I enjoyed that very much. On the other hand, I think that I am so rooted in bluegrass, that even though I might be playing something like Tennessee Plates, which is a pretty rockin’ tune, it’s still going to sound like me.

You always seem to know what to play to fit each song or tune. Does your approach to the fiddle change depending on the song? How do you decide what to play (or not to play) for each number?

Figuring out what to play, or more importantly, what not to play is something I continue to work on and hope to get better at. Yeah, the approach is very different for each song usually. Especially on an album that has a variety of styles. I think a lot that goes into my decision on what to play or not play depends on a lot of things. I definitely listen to the vocal. That’s very important if you’re backing up a singer to listen to the melody of the song, and any inflections or different things like that they are adding. I also love playing off other musicians, and I try to pay close attention to what they are doing and see if I can add to it or expand on their ideas. That sort of thing is how most of the catchy hooks within a song are created, and I really love that kind of thing.

Tall Fiddler features a real “Who’s Who” of special guests, including Sam Bush, Tommy Emmanuel, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Béla Fleck, Dan Tyminski, and many more. Were there any particular “bucket list” guest appearances on this album?

This entire album has been a bucket list thing for sure, but something that I never dreamed in a million years I would ever get to do is cowrite a song with Béla Fleck. That’s just so far beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined, and it was really an honor to get to see how a really great instrumental composer thinks.

You are such a student of the fiddle. You have such a reverence for the masters, such as Kenny Baker, Benny Martin, and more. How do you honor your fiddlin’ heroes with your playing, while still pushing the instrument into the future of acoustic music?

I think a lot of my influences come out in my playing even though I’m not necessarily trying to channel them, or play things note for note the way they did. It’s like if you listen to Bobby Hicks play, you can tell that he was heavily influenced by Dale Potter among others. It doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily playing Potter’s licks, or copying a solo note for note, but if you study the music, you can tell because of different things that have become part of his sound. It could even be how the bowing structure is, or the sound of the vibrato on certain notes.

In addition to many new songs, Tall Fiddler features some old tunes from Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, David “Stringbean” Akeman, and John Hartford. How do you go about re-imagining these tunes in new and creative ways?

Well, I have to say again that a lot of that is thanks to the other musicians and singers. Most of the songs on the album were worked out in the studio as we were recording, and there really wasn’t a set plan or idea before. That’s the way I like to do it, especially when you have four or five other creative people, it would be ridiculous to put everyone in a box just because of some preconceived idea of mine. Now, I did have ideas for certain songs, but it’s hard to really know what’s going to fit for sure until you get everybody in there and see how it plays out.

I’ve heard that there is a little secret about the banjo Béla Fleck is playing on John Hartford’s Old Time River Man. Would you mind sharing that with us?

When we were looking for songs for Tim O’Brien, the three of us, Jeff, Tim, and I, sent a lot of songs back-and-forth. I can’t remember who came up with the idea of doing Old Time River Man, but it has always been one of my favorite John Hartford songs. There is a great video on YouTube of John playing it on American Music Shop — I think with Tony, Vassar, and Mark O’Connor — that has to be my favorite version. When we decided to do that one, I immediately thought, “Hey, I wonder if Béla would play on this, in that low tuned banjo sound that Hartford was famous for?” I sent him the video, and he texted me a little while later and said, “You know, I think I’ve got that banjo that he’s playing on there. I’ll bring it to the studio tomorrow.” Needless to say, it was awesome!

Your band is in the spotlight on much of the album. What makes this current lineup of Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper so special?

What makes this band special to me is that all the guys who play with me are dedicated to anything that’s going to make the whole band better. Whether it be material, types of venues we play, hiring a sound person which has been a huge benefit for us, or any number of things that have come up over the last seven or eight years. To be honest, we were so busy last summer before we were going in the studio last September, that we really didn’t get to rehearse much at all before. We finally got a chance to start working on everything like a week or two before the first session. And I was wondering really how it was going to be, but the guys went in there and we recorded six tracks in two days and I couldn’t have been more proud of them. These guys don’t play in the studio, and the studio is a whole different thing than playing live. That can really do a number on people who aren’t used to playing in the studio, and sometimes it takes a while just to get comfortable. But they killed it!

What do you hope to achieve with Tall Fiddler?

I think my main hope for this album is that it reaches a broader audience. I wanted to try to make an album that would appeal to anyone, regardless of what style of music you listen to, or that’s my hope anyway. The band and I have had the honor of playing shows with orchestras, and at folk and rock festivals where people maybe just had a vague idea of what bluegrass music was, and it seemed like those people were really enthusiastic. We always want to play bluegrass festivals, but if we can play and reach people in other styles of music and introduce them to bluegrass, I think that would be a good thing.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.