It’s a testament to Michael Cleveland’s regal reputation within the bluegrass community that a host of special guests were apparently all too eager to join him on his new LP, the aptly dubbed Tall Fiddler. Of course, whether he was recording solo or surrounded by his notables pals, his credence would remain both recognized and well established. Given his Grammy nod and no less than 11 wins as IBMA’s fiddle player of the year, it’s already a widely known fact that Cleveland resides in the uppermost pantheon of today’s top players.
To his credit, Cleveland doesn’t allow his accolades to circumvent his more playful instincts. Whether plying his skills on top flight instrumentals such as 5-String Wing, Lazy Katie and the title track — the latter of which finds him furiously trading riffs with ace guitarist Tommy Emanuel — or settling into the more subdued terrain embraced by Old Time River Man (another standout, given it features vocals from Tim O’Brien), Cleveland creates the ideal template for each of these sturdy set-ups. Others onboard for this outing include Béla Fleck, Del McCoury, members of the Travelin’ McCourys, Sam Bush, Guthrie Trapp, Dan Tyminski, and Jerry Douglas, and their combined contributions add to the effusive nature of the effort overall.
Bush and Ronnie McCoury lend lead vocals on High Lonesome Sound and Tennessee Plates, respectively, giving each a luster and sheen that shines at the outset, but even Cleveland’s bare-boned duet with Fleck on Tarnation creates an indelible impression simply by virtue of the power of their playing. Even the simplest and most tuneful trappings resonate with a decided melodic flair.
Ultimately, Tall Fiddler is, its title aside, a wholly collaborative endeavor that reflects skill and substance in equal measure. The music resonates in a way that leaves ample room for effortless accessibility, and it’s within that context that Cleveland and his colleagues shine. Virtuosity and vitality offer an ideal combination, one that allows Tall Fiddler to achieve a special stature entirely its own. It’s already evident this album will be touted among this year’s best.