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…

 
 

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.