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.

Constant sorrow: coping with death at Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass festival

 
The Stanley family cemetery

The Stanley family cemetery

 

It’s a year since Dr Ralph Stanley, one of the founding fathers of bluegrass, passed away. Not that he used that term himself. He’d routinely announce his songs as “old-time mountain style of what-they-call-bluegrass music”. To him, bluegrass belonged exclusively to Bill Monroe, and the songs he played were simply the traditional songs of his home, up among the Clinch Mountains in southwest Virginia.

And that’s where I headed this week, to the festival he and his family have held on his homestead for the past 47 years. The land up here originally belonged to Stanley’s grandpa, Noah Smith, and his Uncle Emery had killed his wife here, then shot himself, before Stanley’s parents took over the farm. Stanley’s father had then left his mother for another woman, leaving her to raise two kids with little more than a vegetable patch to feed themselves. There’s a reason Stanley’s autobiography, is called A Man of Constant Sorrow. “Life was real hard here,” he wrote. “It was all you could do to get through it.”

It was a two and a half hour drive along a road so madly winding that it’s known as The Snake and attracts bikers and sports car owners from all over the country. No exaggeration: some of the turns my car had to negotiate were actually more than 180 degrees. You have to traverse a half-dozen hollers before you get to the Hills of Home, as it’s called, so deep into the mountains that you wonder if you might stumble into a lost civilisation, or perhaps some megasaurs from The Land That Time Forgot.

This wasn’t the first year that Dr Ralph hadn’t played his own festival. Last year he was too sick to attend; he died a couple of weeks after the campervans had moved on. On the second day of the festival (the first was a lowkey affair, since it rained too hard for most people to leave their RVs) I met Bill and “Taters”, two friends who have been attending the festival for almost half a century. They took me aboard their golf buggy and drove me up to the Stanley family cemetery, which looks out over the campground and the mountain range beyond.

 
"Taters", me and Bill - and their handy golf buggy

"Taters", me and Bill - and their handy golf buggy

 

It’s a large plot, full of Stanley ancestors and cousins. An expensive range of black marble makes up the gravesites of Carter, Ralph and their mother Lucy Jane, the Stars and Stripes flying overhead. There is a headstone for Ralph’s widow Jimmi (still living), and marble benches for visitors. Ralph himself used to come and sit here often to commune with his brother Carter, whose sweet voice and charismatic frontmanship had won them acclaim as The Stanley Brothers, but who didn’t live to enjoy the worldwide fame his brother achieved, instead drinking himself to an early death.

There’s plenty of morbidity in bluegrass songs: murder ballads, ruined life chances, parents who have died and fields that have turned brown. This festival is the first place I’ve been confronted with the reality of where that comes from. The ties to family are so strong up in the mountains, and the music that emanates from here; one of the provisions of Ralph Stanley’s will was that his musician son Ralph II would take over his old band name, The Clinch Mountain Boys.

They played twice a day at the festival, and no other band’s sets were as well attended. People spoke with proud affection of “Two”, as they call Dr Ralph’s son, and when they lined up at the merch table, he addressed them by name, treating them as part of the extended family.

 
Ralph II, his mother Jimmi, and aunts. 

Ralph II, his mother Jimmi, and aunts. 

 

In a trailer not far from the stage sat Jimmi, Dr Ralph’s widow. She told me she hadn’t managed to make it out to watch any shows yet, because it was still too painful. She’d been in a “deep depression”, she said, but a prophetic lady had told her recently that she’d seen a bright halo around her head. “So I know he’s with me.” And as long as Two keeps playing, the legacy – and the festival – lives on.

Isis: a tale of terror (and ludicrously fast picking)

 
 

I’d heard that you couldn’t throw a rock in Asheville without hitting a musician. I haven’t tested out the theory yet, because I don’t want to way myself down with pockets full of pebbles, but I’m pretty sure it holds up. I’ve been here almost a week and practically everyone I’ve met has either been in the music business or closely related to someone who is.

There’s really no room for amateurs here and, I’ll be honest, I’m out of my league. On Tuesday nights there’s an open jam at the Isis Music Hall – yes, it's really called that, and no, they won't change the name, because it's a renovated movie theatre from 1937 and its name is literally up in lights – in trendy West Asheville, just a couple of minutes down the road from the place I was staying. At about 9.30pm, the restaurant space was filled with diners, and on a large stage overlooking them were a bunch of guys playing some of the fastest bluegrass I have ever heard.

The banjo player was a guy called Judo I’d met the week before at a jam down near Hickory. (His name’s actually Aaron, but he does judo, so that’s what people call him). He waved me backstage to a green room where a host of other musicians who’d just got off stage were sitting and chatting. They were pretty friendly but I was terrified by the sounds coming off the stage. I know where my playing’s at right now, and there is no way I could fiddle that fast. I decided to keep a low profile and try to avoid going out on stage at all.

But that wasn’t the deal here, and after a while someone popped their head out of the door that leads to the stage and said it was time for fresh blood. I walked up there like I was heading to the gallows. Which is probably a good experience for a bluegrass musician, considering how many murder ballads end like that.

Someone asked me what I’d like to play. I saw my only chance of survival. I said, how about something slow, like a waltz? They agreed. I got through it. I stayed on for a couple more tunes. Later in the evening, I had another go, this time in the company of a second fiddler called Scott, who provided welcome cover every time I was out of my depth.

Being out on stage was easily the worst part of the night. The best bit was sitting in the green room with the unbelievable host of talent back there, watching them picking at lightning speed, enjoying each other’s company. My favourite moment was hearing a haunting sound emerging from the bathroom, and realising two of the musicians had gone in there together to play tunes because they liked the acoustic so much. One of them was actually perched on the toilet, fiddling. They were still there when the jam was over, playing til after midnight.

Later in the week I'm going to do a round up of all the amazing talented musicians I've met so you can check out some of their work. Until then, here's a video I took from the balcony, of some of the guys playing…

 
 
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Merlefest bingo: how did I do?

There are certain things you are supposed to experience at Merlefest. Here is my checklist of which ones I did and did not achieve:

Get to see one of your favourite bands up close and personal I stood at the feet of the Steep Canyon Rangers, and looked up at their fiddler Nicky Sanders, and felt like a total groupie. 

Hear James Taylor play The multi-Grammy-award-winning songwriter was the first name on everyone's lips this year - he lives in NC and I met people who bought festival passes just so they could see him. Unfortunately when he was on the mainstage with the Transatlantic Sessions, I got into my big conversation with Harmonica Bruce (see yesterday's blog), so while I was physically present for the gig I didn't actually hear a note. Ironically Bruce was telling me all the reasons why America didn't need or want the rest of the world while the band on stage, which celebrates the exchange of musical culture between different countries, was proving the exact opposite. 

Stay up late for the closing night's famous Midnight Jam It was totally worth losing sleep for. The impromptu mash-up bands on stage, from 10 String Symphony, Front Country, Molly Tuttle, Mipso and many more, had an average age of 25 and an average cool quotient of 11/10.

 
 

Pick with total strangers on a campground after hours Harder to achieve since I wasn't actually camping, but some of my new friends invited me back to the campsite they were staying on at a nearby sewage works. It didn't sound like the most fragrant proposition, but they promised me you couldn't smell anything, and they planned to hold their own "Sewerfest" on Saturday night. By the time I reached them everyone was packing up, and I had to persuade a couple of guys who had already put their guitars away to get them out and play with me. Luckily, people round here really don't need much persuading to pick some more. We were still going at 4.30am.

Lose your sunglasses They fell off my head as I was speeding around on a golf buggy with another Grammy-winner, David Holt. 

Watch the Hillside Album Hour Everyone told me this was the must-see event: the Waybacks, a quirky band out of San Francisco, have for the past 10 years presented their own live cover of an entire classic album. They have lots of special guests from the other bands on site, and keep the album they've chosen a big secret until they start playing it. Here were the hints they gave out on their Facebook page:

Clue #1: Mr. Jones really did not know what was happening here, did he?
Clue #2: Five of Five - we're off to a great start!
Clue #3: What's your name? Who's your daddy?
Clue #4: Anachronistic dramaturg invokes Tennyson loudly. 
Clue #5: Like an apeman I stand before the mixed-up Mormon I nearly left behind.

Have you got it?

 
 

The show's so popular that people get there hours early to lay down their tarps and set up their chairs. I arrived and set down my towel (I'm not a festival pro yet) on the steep slippery incline and discovered you need good core muscles just to stop yourself from sliding back down the hill. We waited through a 45 minute sound check which seemed as tortuous for the band as it was for the rest of us ("someone please gate that bass drum" was heard from the audience).

Eventually Jim Lauderdale appeared on stage to kick things off and after a long funko intro to throw us off the scent, Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae pulled on a marching band jacket and belted out the opening lines of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was relieved, because my knowledge of classic rock is limited and if it had been Bruce Springsteen like it was last year I'd have had to pretend I knew the songs.

Woodsmith's voice is incredible and she ripped up With A Little Help From My Friends. Hearing She's Leaving Home with a four-fiddle quartet was neat, as was Sam Bush and Jens Kruger shredding all those chaotic instrumentals in between songs. It was probably, also, the most I've ever enjoyed Fixing A Hole, which I have always found an epically boring song. Unfortunately sound problems plagued the set and more problematically the Waybacks' front man James Nash had laryngitis. Most of his parts had been hastily redistributed and things were a little off kilter throughout - I left feeling I'd have to come back next year to appreciate the true genius of the Hillside Album Hour.

Eat a funnel cake I heard them described as "fried dough injected with cream and covered in chocolate sauce" and decided I'd pass. 

 

"And this one time, at jam camp…"

 
IMG_6856.JPG
 

It took six hours to reach North Carolina from Virginia, and it would have been a beautiful drive if it hadn’t been pouring with unseasonal rain most of the way. I arrived in Wilkes County – in the foothills of the Appalchians – with the kind of cold that runs through a box of tissues in under an hour.

I came here for a four-day “jam camp” with 80 other bluegrass pickers, many of us relative novices. In the damp, but otherwise pleasant, environs of the YMCA Camp Harrison, we have been gently instructed in the art of jamming by Pete Wernick, aka Dr Banjo. This is a bit like going to a summer soccer school and discovering that your teacher is, I don’t know, Pele. Wernick’s band Hot Rize was one of the most influential bluegrass bands of the 80s, and he also pretty much invented Flexigrass, a genre of music that combined bluegrass with jazz.

He and his wife Joan have run music camps for several years, and have built a large roster of talented teachers; Pete has a gift for the pastoral as well as for the banjo, while Joan (who is also his duet partner) keeps both him and the pupils in check. Each day contains multiple sessions – instrument lessons, harmony singing tutorials, “electives” where you can learn the history of bluegrass, or how to set up a PA – but most of your time is devoted to jamming in small groups, and designed to boost the confidence and experience of even the greenest of players.

If it was the perfect way to kickstart my playing, it was also a good place to discover some of my darkest fears about this trip. There were several young teenagers who played with an ease and brilliance I can never hope to match. Invariably, I’d ask how long they’d been playing – hoping to hear that their father had clamped their hands to a mandolin when they were still unable to form words – and it would turn out that they’d only been doing it a couple of years.

I’m also getting called “Ma’am” a lot, which sounds very lovely and polite, but makes me realise that I am now very definitely out of the “Miss” category that I have held onto for so long. The South is the only place that can inform you, with such brutal courtesy, that you’re not young any more.