Music Credits: “North Carolina Breakdown, traditional, performed by Michael Cleveland, from the album Flamekeeper.
“Orange Blossom Special,” composed by Ervin T. Rouse, performed live by Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, IBMA World of Bluegrass, 2013.
“Black Mountain Rag,” traditional, Michael Cleveland jamming with Doc Watson, Dan Crary, and Tim O'Brien. Backstage at the 1993 World of Bluegrass Awards Show, included in Robert Mugge's 1994 film Gather At The River: A Bluegrass Celebration.
“Bright and Early,”composed and performed by Michael Cleveland with Audie Blaylock, Jesse Brock, and Jason Moore, from the album, Let Her Go, Boys.”
“Tall Fiddler” composed by Tommy Emmanuel, performed by Michael Cleveland and Tommy Emmanuel, from the album, Tall Fiddler.
“Tarnation,” written and performed by Michael Cleveland and Bela Fleck, from the album Tall Fiddler.
Jo Reed: That is the bluegrass virtuoso fiddle-player and 2022 National Heritage Fellow Michael Cleveland playing North Carolina Breakdown. And from the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed
Born legally blind in 1980 in Southern Indiana, Michael Cleveland first picked up a fiddle when he was four, and it’s fair to say the rest is bluegrass history. Known for the speed, intensity, and sheer artistry of his playing, Michael combines a real knowledge of and reverence for earlier bluegrass fiddlers while pushing the music to new places. If you ever wonder how to stay rooted in a tradition while expanding and innovating it, I’d say give a listen to Michael Cleveland. Let me rephrase that—you should just listen to Michael Cleveland—full stop. He is one of the great fiddlers of his generation—Michael has been recognized 12 times as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Fiddler of the Year” and was inducted into the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame in 2018. That same year his recording Fiddler’s Dream was nominated in for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, and he won it the following year for his album Tall Fiddler. I spoke with Michael Cleveland last week and while the recording has a couple of slight audio glitches—it’s a great conversation with a true master. Let’s listen
Jo Reed: Michael Cleveland, so many congratulations on being named a 2022 NEA Heritage Fellow. You have played with so many Heritage Fellows-- Del McCoury, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Jerry Douglas, Andy Statman, have you played with Ralph Stanley or Wayne Henderson?
Michael Cleveland: Yeah. Well, I know Wayne. I got to meet him here in the last few years and I did get to play with Ralph a few times.
Jo Reed: Now, you’re one of them—you’re a National Heritage Fellow and you’re absolutely one of the younger fellows ever to receive this award and I wonder what the award means for you.
Michael Cleveland: Well, it’s truly an honor and I’m very thankful to have been chosen and to John Kay and a lot of the people here in Indiana who have worked really hard to make this happen for me. I’m totally grateful and I’m still finding out all the people who have won this award and to be in a list of-- with those people like Ralph, Andy Statman-- Andy is a great friend of mine and one of my musical heroes-- Jerry Douglas, Bill Monroe, I mean, I never would have dreamed.
Jo Reed: Michael, you come from a bluegrass family. They didn’t play, but they sure loved and supported the music. What are your earliest memories of bluegrass?
Michael Cleveland: I’d say my earliest memory of bluegrass would have been just being in the middle of a bluegrass show because my grandparents went to bluegrass in Indiana all the time. As a matter of fact, you’re correct, none of my family play, but my grandparents got into bluegrass a few years before I was born. So, my grandparents started a show that eventually turned into a bluegrass association that met every second and fourth Saturday of the month in Henryville, Indiana there were other shows going on in Madison, Indiana and Scottsburg, Indiana. So, when my grandparents weren’t working their show, they’d be at all the others and they would take me from the time I was about six months old, apparently, and so, I don’t know that I can remember not being around bluegrass. It might be easier to put it that way.
Jo Reed: Michael, I have to say and I’m really embarrassed to say this-- I hadn’t realized that Southern Indiana was such a hotbed for bluegrass. Talk about that vibrant bluegrass scene when you were growing up.
Michael Cleveland: Yeah. A lot of people don’t realize, but Bill Monroe lived in Indiana and Bill Monroe ended up buying a park in Brown County, Indiana in a small town called Beanblossom and he made that into one of the biggest bluegrass festivals in the country and that started around 1966, but even before that, I think he bought the Brown County Barn around 1952, ’53 and they would have shows there every weekend and then around ’66, ’67 is when they started having the bluegrass festivals there every year and they have one in June that ended up eventually going about ten days and then they’d have another one in September around the time of Bill Monroe’s birthday and that would be like a weekend thing. So, you had those. You had the Beanblossom Festival. There was a ton of bluegrass and there was a ton of great musicians here. A lot of them never did go out and play for a living or anything, but they could have and they all had families and real jobs and all that kind of thing, but there’s a lot of bluegrass around this area.
Jo Reed: Well, it’s hard to make a living in music. Let’s face it. You were born completely blind and your parents sent you to the Kentucky School for the Blind when you were quite young. Can you talk about the experience of going to school there and what that school did for you, both personally and professionally?
Michael Cleveland: Well, yeah. So, I guess I should have went to the Indiana School for the Blind because I live in Southern Indiana, but the deal was Indianapolis is about 100 miles away and Louisville was about 20, 25 miles away and my parents didn’t really want to send me that far to Indiana and so, my dad worked at Pepsi. My dad was a truck driver and he had a friend named Gary Miller, who became my legal guardian and that was the way that I was able to go to the Kentucky School for the Blind and the school-- going to the School for the Blind helped me a lot in the sense that I was around other people who were visually impaired dealing with the same things and to see how they excelled and did pretty much anything they wanted to do, that was huge for me. But I never did necessarily like school and I never did-- I don't know. I was always thinking about music. I did pretty well in school. I didn’t flunk out or anything, but my head was always in music. But, you’d go to the school Sunday night and you’d stay in the dorm until Friday and then you would go home. You would go home Friday and then Saturday and then you’d be back on Sunday. So, that was pretty hard for me to get used to it because I’d never really been away from home and I was four years old when I went and obviously, I know now it couldn’t have been easy for my parents, but yeah, that was kind of hard to get used to.
Jo Reed: I can bet it was. I was sent away to boarding school when I was twelve and it was hard at twelve. I can only imagine it at four. But the school had a really rich music program, didn’t it?
Michael Cleveland: It did. Sorry, my computer is yelling at me.
Jo Reed: That’s okay.
Michael Cleveland: It did. At the time, like yeah, it had a strings program, which is what I started on and then also had band-- we had a great band, man. At one point, we had a band that would play all the pep rallies and stuff -- it was a great rock band and then we had strings and choral and about everything else you could think of and so, I figured out I wanted to play the fiddle. I’d heard somebody play “Orange Blossom Special” and that just rocked my world and I knew that I had to learn how to play that song, if nothing else, and I don't know what it was-- thinking back on it now, I don't know if it was all the train sounds or obviously the speed of it. I’ve always been a big fan of that and just the energy of bluegrass. I think that’s what always did it for me, the energy and the intensity in which people play. So, yeah, I started when I was four and I started taking classical and the Suzuki Method is what they taught. So, that’s a great way for kids to learn who are just starting to play, but the main thing that it did was we all learned by ear, even learning classical. So, it was great for me early on to-- it was great ear training to be able to listen to that stuff and try to figure out what was actually going on and yeah, so, that’s kind of how I got started.
Jo Reed: Well, I didn’t realize that because of an early illness, you have an 80% hearing loss in your left ear and I wonder how that impacted both your learning, but also your playing today.
Michael Cleveland: Well, I’m not sure. It’s kind of like when people ask you “How do you think your blindness affected your music?” or anything else. I was going to play regardless of whether I could hear in my left hear or not. I was just bound and determined to do it. But yeah, I don't know. It’s definitely challenging, even now. Now that we have a sound man and we have in-ear monitors, it doesn’t really matter too much where I stand, but if I’m sitting in with somebody and playing, I prefer to be kind of on the left side or the right end of the stage looking at it from the audience point of view to where everybody’s on my right and one of the guys in my band said one time that he thought that’s why I played so far is just because the fiddle was right under my left ear and he thought that if I had it on-- if I had hearing, that I probably wouldn’t play as hard as I do and maybe so, but I do like that aggression, that intensity. So, I don't know. It’s very interesting.
Jo Reed: It certainly is. Was the school opened at all to you playing bluegrass? I know they taught classical, but they also had various other music programs as well. Did they encourage bluegrass?
Michael Cleveland: Not really. I think a lot of it, they did have my best interests at heart, but, the music teacher that I had had probably heard a bad example of bluegrass or whatever and they really didn’t want me playing it and they thought it was going to hurt my playing and the rest of the people in school, they just kind of looked down on it. It’s like bluegrass, it was like some kind of a joke or something. Until I got to be about 16, 17 years old and started doing more and more things and they figured out “Oh, yeah, this might actually be real.” I think what happened is I had entered this contest for Very Special Arts. It was an organization that showcased people with various disabilities and they had a contest that you could enter and I ended up winning that and one of the things they asked me to do after I won that contest, they asked me to do some local things around the Louisville area for very special arts and they were going to meet before Congress in DC and they asked me and I took my friend Brian with me and we went to DC and before and after the meeting, we played like a couple tunes while everybody was walking in and a couple more while everybody was leaving and so, we played before Congress and for whatever reason, the teachers at my school, all of a sudden, it was a big turnaround. It was like “Oh, yeah, this might actually be real. He might actually do something.” But in their defense, I do know there’s so many musicians out here and there’s so many people trying to do the same thing and sometimes, it really doesn’t even matter how good you are if you’re not at the right place or at the right time and so, I get the fact that they would say “You need something else to fall back on.” So, I do understand that side of it.
Jo Reed: In terms of the culture of bluegrass music, this is a music that’s really passed down and taught within communities. Isn’t that correct? It seems like there’s a music-- there’s no us, there’s no them. There’s such little separation between the people on the stage and the people in the audience.
Michael Cleveland: Yeah. That’s one of the great things about it is that I mean, you can learn bluegrass. So much of what you learn and what just about everybody learns is just from being there, being in front of somebody playing the lick you want to learn and that’s the cool thing about this music is all the people on stage. I mean, you can meet your favorite bluegrass stars. If you’re at a bluegrass festival, most of the bands will be set up, have a merch table or whatever and it’s very easy to talk to these people and then night after the shows are over, there’s usually a lot of jam sessions going on and you probably run into some of the people you see or you watch on stage in the jams. So, that was something that I really liked about the music is that you could go up to your hero and most of the time, they would tell you exactly how they did whatever it was and I don’t think you can get that about any other kind of music.
Jo Reed: Well, tell me how you learned bluegrass. So, it wasn’t happening at your school and your grandparents were taking you out to lots of festivals and they had a great collection of bluegrass. How did you actually learn it?
Michael Cleveland: Well, it was a very slow process. The school, it was weird. Like, they didn’t want me playing bluegrass, but they did have these books of fiddle tunes that you could learn, which are pretty much bluegrass. My teachers showed me a simple version of “Boil the Cabbage Down,” which is one of the first tunes and one of the simplest tunes you could learn starting out playing fiddle, “Boil the Cabbage Down,” “Old Joe Clark,” A nd so, I think I only knew maybe those two tunes and I’ve been playing for three years at this point. It’s probably two years before I got going playing anything. It was pretty slow. So, once I got to where I could play real simple versions of these tunes, I just started going-- we were going to all these bluegrass shows anyway. I just started taking my fiddle and there were a lot of people around that took time to show me what they knew and this has always blown my mind and I’ve never been able to figure it out. So, the best bands that would come to the bluegrass shows, I could always stand in the background and play and I know I was god awful. I was just god awful, just trying to learn how to play, a little kid scratching around and I mean, the best bands would let me play with them and the worst bands would let me play with them, but the mediocre ones, no way. I never did figure that out. So, anyhow...
Jo Reed: But you were a baby at this point.
Michael Cleveland: Oh, yeah.
Jo Reed: You were what? Seven years old, maybe.
Michael Cleveland: Probably so.
Jo Reed: Yeah. You’ve always talked about how you’ve always been curious, always eager to learn about the fiddle and ask questions and learn the history of a song, to unravel it through the people who are playing it now but who they learned it from. You could have been a bluegrass historian. I mean, you still could be, for all I know. Talk about why that was so important to you.
Michael Cleveland: Well, I was already very interested in the music. But when I was about 12 years old, I played a festival, a fiddlers gathering in Battle Ground, Indiana and one of the guys that helped put it on, Dave Samuelson, who I didn’t really know at that time, he came up to me and he said “You know, I’d like to give you some music sometime that I think you need to listen to and I said “Okay, that would be great,” and I didn’t really think too much more about it, So, I thought “Well, I’ll probably never hear anything from him again,” and then I played another festival a few months later in Northern Indiana and here he was and he had a big box of tapes and now, this guy was sighted. He had a box of tapes that he had braille labeled. I mean, we’re talking probably 15, 20-something tapes the first time and it had everything from the first recordings of ”Orange Blossom”,”Sally Goodin”, all of the classic little tunes. It had Will Monroe, Earl Scruggs live radio shows, opry shows that you wouldn’t hear. I mean, you don’t buy this stuff. Then there was Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, all the jazz fiddle players, and not only was it the music. The thing that he did was before every recording that he played, he would talk about it and he would say, “Listen to this part of the recording, and you’ll hear the same thing that Chubby Wise played on this Bill Monroe recording, that he actually got from Stephane Grappelli,” or “ I know you like Bobby Hicks’s playing, but listen to Del Potter and you can tell where Bobby Hicks got a lot of his stuff.” So, I think Dave Samuelson is responsible for me getting into all the history of it, That right there, truly grateful to Dave for opening so many doors for me.
Jo Reed: Well, Michael, you learn a song and there’s learning the notes, but then there’s the heart of the song, the essence of the song and also the heart that you bring to that song. I’m curious how you learned about bringing your own heart into the music.
Michael Cleveland: Boy, that’s a very good question. How I learned that.
Jo Reed: And, I don’t even mean if it was a conscious learning, but just allowing yourself to do it perhaps.
Michael Cleveland: Yeah, well music has always been-- if it was something I was really into playing, I don’t think I ever had any trouble expressing that, but I know what you mean. I’m not saying that I automatically started doing it, and that’s a very good question.
Jo Reed: Right, because when you’re a kid, it’s like, “Wow, I got the song right!”
Michael Cleveland: And you play it like a robot. Yeah, oh I know. Just thinking about it right now, all the people that I was around playing bluegrass, they all kind of had their own personality and I always liked listening to the different fiddle players, the local fiddle players, and hearing how they played. That they listened to this record and they learned it. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is bluegrass is not a written music. Even though you can buy tablature. I guess I was always used to being around bluegrass people and how they played and how they were different from each other and they’re all pretty much stylists. So, I guess that’s the thing. If I had just played classical music, I would have probably had a much harder time doing that, but me, I think just growing up around people who never did learn by music and all they did learn was by ear or by watching other people. They put their personality into the music by pretty much no other choice, you know what I mean?
Jo Reed: It’s just so much a part of the music itself.
Michael Cleveland: It is and that personality, but I guess if I had to put my finger on it, I think just being around those people, because I have worked with classical violinists who tried to get into bluegrass and they can play it. The stuff that they play in classical music is way harder than a lot of what we do, but the bowing is different and the expression is different and that’s what-- that’s the same kind of deal. You can hear the notes and it’s definitely the tune, but you can tell a big difference and it’s just something, I don’t know, that you develop over time.
Jo Reed: Well, how old were you when you began playing at festivals?
Michael Cleveland: Well, so as far as being up on stage, that was one of the things my grandparents’ show and all these other shows around here. So I was on stage I think the first time, a band got me up on stage to play my one song, “Boil the Cabbage Down” that I knew, I think I was about six or seven and then I started going to contests around the time I was seven, eight, nine, and so I would play on stage at those. Yeah, I guess I went to a couple bluegrass festivals early on, but mostly just local stuff and then I went to Bean Blossom. My grandparents took me there when I was nine and I got to play with Bill Monroe. They had this thing called the Sunset Jam, where they would set up some microphones by this oak tree and anybody who was in the park who wanted to play with Bill Monroe, they could do it. So, I did that and I guess those were about the first things that I did that was really outside of just the local stuff here around Henryville. Then probably the first real big thing where I was, I guess, maybe introduced in a way to the bluegrass community was when I was about thirteen. A guy named Pete Wernick called me and Pete was the banjo player in a great bluegrass band, a very popular bluegrass band called Hot Rize and he was also the, I think, President or Vice President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Pete had read an article that somebody had wrote in The Washington Post that basically said that bluegrass was dying. There were no kids getting interested in the music and Pete decided he wanted to prove that article wrong, so he was looking for a band. He was wanting to put a band together of kids around twelve, fourteen, fifteen years old, something like that. He, I guess, had heard of me and then he had the guitar player, Cody Kilby, and the mandolin player was Chris Thile and then Josh Williams on the banjo and my buddy, Brady Stockle [ph?] from here in Indiana played bass. He put together this band of kids and we played the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards Show and it was a pretty big deal because everybody was there. IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association Awards Show is considered the biggest night in bluegrass. So, you had everybody from Alison Krauss to Jimmy Martin to anybody you could think of sitting out in the audience, and so I would say that was the first time that I actually played in front of a lot of the bluegrass community and then that was recorded on a video. Some of that was released on the video called “Gather at the River.” I guess that was some of the first things.
Jo Reed: And, is that where you met Doc Watson?
Michael Cleveland: Yep. Yeah, right after the awards show, my dad and I were walking around and of coursethis is the first time I had ever been to anything this big and all the people who I listened to and dreamed about meeting or playing with were all in this venue, and so I was like a kid in a candy store and just running around everywhere and we were looking for jams. My dad and I went into this big bathroom and in this bathroom was Doc Watson, Tim O’Brien, Dan Crary and all these people just jamming in the bathroom. My dad, I think, asked them if I could play with them and they said, “Yeah, sure.” I remember I wanted to play Black Mountain Rag with Doc, and we played it exactly like it was on that record and it was like, “Wow, here I am playing Black Mountain Rag with Doc Watson.” So, yeah, we got in about a thirty/forty minute jam session and they just happened to be videoing for this documentary and so that was-- even-- when I started playing with Dale Ann Bradley when I was about eighteen and really started going to all these places, I found out how many people had actually seen that video, because I had people coming up to me, like, “Man, I saw you on that video with Doc.” I still have people, to this day, “I got you on a video at my house playing with Doc Watson.”
Jo Reed: And, you’re talking to somebody else who actually saw that too. I mean, aside from your playing, which was extraordinary, what I kept thinking was, where did this kid get this confidence? You were so confident.
Michael Cleveland: I was so stupid. I didn’t know any better. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You came to the attention of Alison Krauss and she brought you to the Grand Ole Opry and you were thirteen, correct?
Michael Cleveland: Oh yeah.
Jo Reed: Tell me about that experience. A, were you nervous?
Michael Cleveland: Yeah, I guess I was. We had went to see Alison Krauss at a local show and talked to her for a little bit and she had seen me play the performance at IBMA. She had just been made a member of the Grand Ole Opry. So, then I don’t know how long after it was, but I came home from school one Friday afternoon and the phone rings and I pick it up and this voice on the other end said, “Hey Michael, it’s Alison.” I said, “Alison who?” She said, “Alison Krauss and the band and I wanted to ask you if you would play the Grand Ole Opry with us on November 27th.” I’ll never forget, November 27th, 1993, that’s when it was. I went, got to go to the opry, hang out backstage, I mean, see Bill Monroe, Alison and the band, they were picking back there. I think I was just wired. I don’t think I was nervous. I was wired. I think I drove everybody nuts that day. It was a blur. You’ve got all this anticipation leading up to it, and it’s still this way. Whenever you play the Opry, you play one or two songs and it’s over like that, but man, I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget that first time and man, I’m very thankful to Alison Krauss for making that happen for me.
Jo Reed: Well, you graduate from high school and you decide you’re going to play professionally. You’re extremely lucky because your parents are very encouraging without being pushy and that is a great balance, and you played with Dale Ann Bradley as you said and then Rhonda Vincent and I’m curious what you learned about playing in the same band consistently and about being a professional musician from them, as well as how to play to a crowd.
Michael Cleveland: Yeah. Well, playing with Dale Ann and playing with Rhonda were great in a number of ways, one of which musically was how to play in keys like E flat or A flat or C sharp, keys that guys don’t normally sing in that women, their voices tend to work better in those keys, depending on what the song is, obviously. And, so being able to learn how to play in those keys and to really back up a singer, to play what fits a song versus throw in every lick you know in there, to look beyond that and find something that complements what the singer is doing without being in the way, and so that’s one thing that I learned and then playing with Rhonda, Rhonda is great at working a crowd and knowing what the audience wants at any given time. And, so with Rhonda, you might have a set list written out, but it could change at a moment’s notice. Those were a few things I learned and then there’s just the fact that when you play in a band with four or five other people, everybody’s got their own personalities, everybody’s got their own quirks and things like that, so you just figure out not only how to play the music and how to cut the gig, but to get along and be around five other crazy musicians.
Jo Reed: Well, you came out with a solo album in 2002. What were you, all of twenty-two, twenty-one?
Michael Cleveland: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Called Flamekeeper. So, first, Flamekeeper, that obviously is a word that means something to you because it’s also the name of your current band. What attracts you to that name?
Michael Cleveland: Well, that name came from the President of Rounder Records, which was a label that that album came out on and he suggested that name. And I think it fits because we were, and we still do pay tribute to the people who set the standards of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Flatt Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Stanley Brothers, and people like that, but what we’re doing more now is we still play that way, but we also add our own elements to it and try to take it in sort of a new direction at times without losing those traditional elements. That’s very important to me. So, as far as Flamekeeper, that’s what it comes from. It’s not necessarily just fiddle music. It’s bluegrass music and paying tribute to the people who created the music but yet still adding your own personality and elements and energy to it.
Jo Reed: You formed your own band called Flamekeeper in 2006. What did you want to do with your band? What did you want to do as a leader that you weren’t able to do as a band member?
Michael Cleveland: Well, that’s a very good question because I never really wanted to be a band leader. I had definite ideas about music and how it should go and how it should sound and I knew the music that I liked to play. What actually started it was that Dale Ann wasn’t working a whole lot and summer was coming up. I think this was, like, 2005, 2006 and she didn’t have a lot of dates and I wanted to play. I had released that Flamekeeper album and “Ragged Edge” and then “Let Her Go, Boys.” All those albums were on Rounder and these all came out while I was playing with Dale Ann. So, you could say, even while I was in Dale Ann’s band, I had these other albums that were apart from that and they won some awards. So, they had gotten some recognition through the bluegrass community. So, around 2006, when we didn’t have a lot going that summer, I was talking to some of the guys who had played on the “Flamekeeper” and the “Let Her Go, Boys” album, Audie Blaylock, Jesse Brock, and a great bass player, Jason Moore and the thing that made those albums is not just my playing, but the way those guys played. You go listen to “Flamekeeper” and the “Let Her Go, Boys” and listen to the groove. Listen to how those guys played together and and it was a great band. I got in a jam with those guys and it was just like a spiritual awakening. It’s like, I didn’t know music could be that tight, that together. So, that’s kind of how it started. And there was a guy that we started working with, Jim Rowe who was a booking agent. He saw this Flamekeeper band play a showcase and he came up to me and he said, “This is what you need to be doing, right here,” and so he started booking us. Naturally, there were a couple of changes in players because not everybody could do it. and so yeah, that’s how the band got started.
Jo Reed: For you as a player, can you talk about the differences between jamming, rehearsing, performing, and recording?
Michael Cleveland: All right. Well, I mean, to me, a jam is kind of a free for all, you’re just playing. You’re playing for fun and a jam is usually where some of the best music happens, because there’s no pressure in a jam and everybody can hear really well in a jam because you can stand in a circle and you don’t have a PA system that may or may not be a factor in whether you can hear or whatever. So, you’ve got everybody in a circle or whatever and playing and it’s the greatest thing in the world.
Jo Reed: Is it your favorite way to play?
Michael Cleveland: Yeah, I think so. Now rehearsal, you’re going to play the same song a lot, over and over and over again and you go through each part of the song that’s not to your satisfaction and you play that part and work on it and figure out how to improve on it. You play the stuff until you can play it in your sleep.
Jo Reed: I guess it’s different from recording. With recording, you have to be much more on it because it’s studio time and all the expense involved with the producer, etc.
Michael Cleveland: Well, see, the thing is, recordings, yeah you do have to be on. I mean, you do have to know it and be able to play it, but man, studio recording is easier now than it’s ever been. It’s so easy now to fix things and most of the time now when you record, you might have the band all in the studio but everybody’s separated. So, you all play on headphones and you’ll be in your space, so you can hear each other, but what this enables you to do is to be able to fix individual parts. So, in that way, recording is much easier in some ways.
Jo Reed: And, what about performing?
Michael Cleveland: Well, the best way I know how to describe a performance, because it’s totally different energy. It’s like you work and you practice and you get it to that point where you know the music and where you’re comfortable with it and then you get out on stage and whatever happens, happens. That’s the best way I know how to describe it. But, the energy of the crowd, that’s the big thing on stage. When you hear the crowd really getting into it, yeah, that’s the best feeling in the world and that’s what can take it to another level. If the musicians, if everybody’s playing good and feeding off each other, the sound’s good, you can hear what you’re doing and the crowd’s really into it, there’s no better.
Jo Reed: I need to talk about some of your other awards, the International Bluegrass Music Award, Fiddler of the Year twelve times, Flamekeeper won Instrumental Group of the Year seven times. I mean, you’re being voted on by your fellow musicians. That has got to mean a lot to you.
Michael Cleveland: It does, yeah.
Jo Reed: And, then you were nominated for a Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album for Fiddler’s Dream and then you won in 2019 for your album, Tall Fiddler. So, first, let’s talk about winning that Grammy award and what that experience was like for you.
Michael Cleveland: I was really hoping that I would have a chance. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, but you never know. But I remember when my name was called, it’s like it almost didn’t register. I just sat there and I got up there and I was shaking like a leaf. I was pretty shook up. I think I got up on stage and I really, I thanked people who weren’t even on the album. <laughs> I had a whole list of names and people to thank and everything and man, practice it and all that in case something happened and then once I got up there, man, that all just went out the window. I was just blown away.
Jo Reed: I was going to say, well the people you had on that album was extraordinary. I mean, you had Del McCoury and the McCourys, you had Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien. It was a who’s who of bluegrass musicians. How did that album come together and how did you choose what to play and who to play it with?
Michael Cleveland: A lot of albums for me come together slowly. Sometimes I have a complete vision of what the album’s going to be or whatever, but most of the time, it doesn’t start out that way and it starts out with a song and you hear one song, maybe somebody sends you a song or you hear something. In my case, the Tall Fiddler, I just downloaded a Tommy Emmanuel album, because I like Tommy’s guitar playing. His very first song on it was a fiddle tune and I could tell, even though it was just him playing it on the guitar, I knew it was a fiddle tune, and that was the Tall Fiddler. Come to find out, reason Tommy wrote it, and who it was written about, was a great fiddle player named Byron Berline and Byron was a legend in bluegrass fiddle. We recently lost him And so I heard that and I thought, “Man, now I know that’s a fiddle tune, I wonder if he’s ever recorded that with a fiddle player,” and then there were other songs that the band and I had been playing and I got to write a song with Bela Fleck, which I never thought I’d be able to do. Yeah, it was a very fun album in the sense that playing with so many people. It was almost like a jam session.
Jo Reed: I definitely will, but I think we’re going to try and get it up in the next couple of weeks, so I will let you know. When it comes to music, I’ll talk to you about what music we can learn. How much music do you write yourself?
Michael Cleveland: I’ve written quite a few things. It’s probably something that I should do more.
Jo Reed: Do you like writing music?
Michael Cleveland: I do. It’s kind of like for me, I have to get my head in that space because I’ll get into playing if the band’s playing a bunch out on the road and I’ll be all into that and I record a lot at home on other people’s music. People will send me tracks to play on and sometimes, it’s not conducive to writing tunes. A lot of times, it’s so weird for me. Sometimes when I’m not trying to write a song, like I’ll get a piece of something in my head and think, “Man, that’s really cool,” and that’s usually how it starts. Very rarely has it worked out that I’ve sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to write a song.” I can usually come up with something, but the best songs for me, maybe you’ll wake up and you’ll have something in your head, like a little piece of a melody line or something and it’s very important to record all that and that’s one of the things that I found, man you can record those voice memos. I bet I’ve got ten million voice memos on my phone, just little pieces of songs. Some of them I haven’t done anything with and a lot of times, I like to go back and find those and see if I can make something out of it, but yeah, writing is something I want to learn more about and do more of -- just writing with other people and see how they go about it. Like, Bela Fleck, I mean, it’s just endless ideas. “Okay, you don’t like that idea, how about this? See what you think of this,” and it’s something totally different. But yeah, that’s kind of my writing process, I guess you could say.
Jo Reed: Looking forward, I wonder what you might have to say to younger bluegrass musicians as they’re learning this music.
Michael Cleveland: If I had to say anything to somebody trying to learn bluegrass or to get into music, is I would say first and foremost, it’s got to be fun. It’s got to be something you enjoy doing and to really be good at it, music or anything else, it’s got to be something that you just can’t not do or can’t not think about. Like, I’ll bet, if I’m not playing music, chances are I’m thinking about music. But, the thing is, to have fun and never lose sight of you and back to what we were saying before, your personality, what you put into the music. It's very important to learn the songs and how they go and the fundamentals and the correct way to play the music, but at some point, you’ve got to have you in there. If you can do that, then in my opinion, you’re a musician.
Jo Reed: My final question, and we’ve talked around it a lot, but I wonder for you on a very personal level, what does bluegrass music mean to you?
Michael Cleveland: Oh, man, that’s a hard question. It shouldn’t be. Bluegrass music to me is community, is family, is energy, intensity, and so many other things. Bluegrass music in general, I mean, it’s my life. It’s all I ever wanted to do and all I think about.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Michael, thank you so much for giving me so much of your time.
Michael Cleveland: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I really appreciate it, and so many congratulations.
Michael Cleveland: Thanks. It’s truly an honor.
Jo Reed: That was bluegrass fiddler and 2022 National Heritage Fellow Michael Cleveland. You can keep up with Michael at Michael Cleveland Fiddle.com and here’s a heads up: we are celebrating all of the amazing 2022 National Heritage Fellows on November 17 when we’ll premier a film that documents their extraordinary work. Check out our website arts.gov for more information as the date approaches. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. Let us know what you think about the Art Works podcast and suggest someone we should speak to by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, Thanks for listening.
Virtuoso fiddler and 2022 National Heritage Fellow Michael Cleveland talks about his life in bluegrass—and it is a lifelong love affair. He was brought to bluegrass shows as an infant and began performing on stage when he was about seven years. Known for the speed, intensity, and artistry of his playing, Cleveland is one of the great fiddler players of his generation, recognized 12 times as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) “Fiddler of the Year” and inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. Cleveland was a child he came to the attention of musicians like Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and Alison Krauss (who brought him to the Grand Ole Opry to play with her band when he was 13).
In this podcast, Cleveland talks about going to the Kentucky School for the Blind when he was four years old—a school with a rich music program that frowned on bluegrass. He learned classical violin during the week and bluegrass when he came home on weekends. We discuss southern Indiana’s rich history in bluegrass, how the music itself is rooted in community where jams are the real places of learning the music, and the accessibility of bluegrass performers to their audiences Cleveland recalls starting his professional career, which began by playing with Dale Ann Bradley and Rhonda Vincent; his branching out to solo work; and beginning his own band, Flamekeeper (named Instrumental Group of the Year by IBMA seven times.) We also discuss his many collaborations with musicians like Béla Fleck, Tommy Emmanuel, and Heritage Fellows Del McCoury, Andy Statman, and Jerry Douglas as well as his Grammy Award for Tall Fiddler. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at email@example.com. And follow us on Apple Podcasts!