Want to know what's going on in Michael Cleveland's brain when he plays fiddle? So did I…

 
 

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!).

 
Tyler Griffith, me and Michael Cleveland at the Red, White and Bluegrass, Morganton, NC 

Tyler Griffith, me and Michael Cleveland at the
Red, White and Bluegrass, Morganton, NC 

 

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…

 
 

Going back to Old Kentucky: close encounters at Bill Monroe’s home

 
 

As origin stories go, bluegrass music should be a pretty simple one*. There was a guy called Bill Monroe, he had a band called the Bluegrass Boys, and his music – a groundbreaking synthesis of old-time country music, gospel and blues – was so great that a whole host of people started copying it. You can trace his influences back to Appalachia, or even further to Scottish balladry if you like, but really, without Bill that grass would have stayed as green as Kermit’s ass.

Last week I drove to Rosine, Kentucky, on a pilgrimage to see the place where Monroe grew up. His upbringing had a huge effect on his music: his position as the youngest in his family meant he was often overlooked and ignored, which fostered both his creativity and his ambition, and the early death of his parents left him in the care of his fiddle-playing Uncle Pen. So it’s a bit of a Cinderella story, with some Spiderman thrown in.

 
The kitchen/parlour at Bill Monroe's homeplace, Rosine, KY

The kitchen/parlour at Bill Monroe's homeplace, Rosine, KY

 

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from Rosine, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. It began when I arrived at the Monroe homeplace, and the first person I met was Jarrett Watts, whose father Howard – aka Cedric Rainwater – was bass player in Monroe’s “classic band”. Jarrett told me he’d been given six months to live by his doctors, and visiting Rosine was number one on his bucket list.

As we walked into Monroe’s bedroom, Jarrett stopped in front of the mantelpiece, where a framed black and white picture showed Monroe posing on the steps of an aircraft. He reached for his wallet, and pulled out the original photograph – a wider angle that showed the rest of the band, including his father, standing behind Monroe on the stairs. They’d been heading for a gig in Roanoke, Jarrett told me, out of Nashville, where he grew up. Jarrett’s schoolfriends were the offspring of country stars; James Monroe, Bill’s son, was his swimming buddy.

Was this the strangest thing to happen to me in Rosine? It depends where you rank the scene by Bill Monroe’s graveside, where I joined a church group being shown around by Ohio County’s Judge Executive. You certainly don’t find the chief administrator of an English county council walking around a cemetery with a guitar, singing to local tour groups. And then there was the discovery of Tom Ewing on the porch of Uncle Pen’s cabin. Here at Bill Monroe’s teenage home sat a man who had been one of his Bluegrass Boys for a decade. He had his guitar. We played Jerusalem Ridge together. I started to wonder if Monroe was sitting up in the clouds, planning out my day for me.

He sure was. That evening, an open air gig was taking place in the park; as I sat on the grass to listen, someone who had seen me picking at the Monroe homeplace earlier in the day told the band, Kings Highway, that there was an English woman in the audience, and that she played fiddle. I should point out that they had a fantastic fiddle player, Isaac, who was absolutely killing it on stage despite being barely 12 years old. And yet, before I knew it I’d been invited up to the bandstand to play with them, and we were still going long after most of the audience left for bed.

 
On stage with Kings Highway! 

On stage with Kings Highway! 

 

As I drove to my motel that night, a big old full moon shone down from the Kentucky sky. I think Bill was proud of me.

*It’s not. Musicians, fans and academics have been debating the precise moment that bluegrass began since the 1960s, like those medieval scholastics who argued over how many angels you could fit on the head of a pin.