One of the things you have to do when you’re trying to become a bluegrass fiddler is listen to a lot of brilliant fiddlers in an effort to learn from them. This can have one of two effects: inspire and motivate you to become the best you can be, or remind you of just how untalented you are and send you into a depression so deep you suspect you should never pick up your instrument again. I cannon between these two reactions like a pinball.
There are quite a few fiddlers who I would happily take a three-day road trip to see on stage. Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers is one of them. Sara Watkins and Brittany Haas are two more. But the person who I have now driven a literal 1,000 mile round trip to watch is Michael Cleveland, performing first at the annual Bill Monroe Festival at the Bean Blossom campground near Morganton, Indiana, and then at the Red, White and Bluegrass festival in Morganton, North Carolina. A tale of two Morgantons, if you will.
Cleveland’s skills are beyond extraordinary. His fiddling seems to defy the laws of physics. His bow moves so fast it ought to break the sound barrier. His inventiveness appears to be infinite. And yet while he’s handling licks and riffs at speeds that some of his predecessors might never have dared to imagine, and in endless variety, his music carries within it the sound of bluegrass as it was played in its earliest incarnations. There’s a reason why his band is called Flamekeeper: Cleveland has absorbed, mastered and elevated the entire canon of bluegrass fiddling from Benny Martin to Vassar Clements.
He was certainly on mindblowing form at Bean Blossom, where I risked exploding my eardrums by sitting directly in front of the speakers. I wanted to see him up close – he has an unusual bowhold, and a uniquely violent manner when it comes to ‘chopping’, ie playing the rhythmic offbeats beneath the tune – and both add to the drama of his virtuoso performances.
When the performance was over, I headed back to my tent, disappointed that I couldn’t find more people jamming. It turned out I was too early – the music kicked off at the cabin next to mine at about 2am. When I went over to introduce myself the next day, I found Tyler, Michael Cleveland’s bass player, picking with his uncle. And a couple of weeks later, I found myself meeting Michael Cleveland himself, backstage, at the Red White and Bluegrass jam (thanks for the help, Tyler!).
There was a torrential storm the day that Michael and his band were playing in Morganton, NC. They’d just played their first set, and Michael was more than happy to sit down and chat with someone who’s still struggling with the rudiments of bluegrass fiddling. He himself is a teacher, and it’s a role he cares deeply about. He hasn’t forgotten how passionately he persuaded his music teachers at the Kentucky School for the Blind to let him learn bluegrass alongside classical violin.
“People talk about prodigies and say things like, ‘he could play that thing from the moment he picked it up,’” said Michael. “But that’s never true. We all have to go through the stage where we’re no good. Everyone has to work at it. And it takes time, for everyone.” I wondered if he thinks his learning process was speeded up by the fact he was blind. Did he think being without sight gave you a greater hunger for music? “I’ve always had a good ear, I’ve always been able to hear things well,” he says. “But does it make me love music more? I don’t know… I’ve always been blind, so I can’t tell if it’s affected me. It would be interesting to know if that’s the case for people like Doc Watson, who have had sight and then lost it.”
I asked him what was going through his mind while he’s up on stage and the answer shocked me. “A lot of the time I’m just trying to hold on,” he said. Really? Cleveland, the consummate performer, the man whose fingers ricochet across the strings, is… trying to hold on? “Yeah,” he laughed, “sometimes we’re playing really fast and I’m just trying to get through it.”
He, Tyler and the band were back on stage later that night – at least, they would be if the rain stopped bucketing down. “Will you be back for the show later?” he asked. I told him I would. “Oh good,” he said. “I’ll try not to suck like I did in the first set.” Even virtuousos, apparently, don’t love their own playing every day. Oh, and he likes my violin…