I was unaware of Michael Cleveland until a friend of mine told me about the Flamekeeper : The Michael Cleveland Story documentary which chronicles Michael’s life and rise to prominence in the bluegrass world. A child prodigy, Cleveland developed an early love for the fiddle and bluegrass. Years later, after eleven Fiddle Player of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, Cleveland stepped out front and took the reins as a front man. The latest result of this move is Tall Fiddler out on Compass Records this week. It is, start to finish, one of the best records, regardless of genre, I have ever listened to. Given his acclaim it is no surprise that Cleveland has a who’s who of musicians vying to play with him. The featured players on Tall Fiddler read like a Hall of Fame inductee list with luminaries such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski, Tim Obrien, Tommy Emmanuel, and the Travelin’ McCourys all taking a turn.
Album opener “Arkansas” with Cleveland’s fiddle playing right up-front sets things off on the good foot immediately. With the band tightly following the fiddle you are almost hanging on every note and fill to see where he is gong to take the song. “20 Cent Cotton” with Tim O’Brien’s voice weaving back and forth with the fiddle work makes you start to realize you are hearing something special. “Beauty of My Dreams” features Del McCoury which should tell you just how kick ass this track is. The vocals and mandolin take the spotlight and Cleveland’s playing, maybe for the only time during the albums thirteen tracks, almost takes a back seat, allowing Del to shine. “Five String Swing” lets the band flex their chops and the playful fiddle work sweetly comes in and out.
After the first few notes of John Hiatt’s “Tennessee Plates” I did a double take. Did I just hear what I thought I heard? Drums? On a bluegrass album? Yes, those are indeed drums and who better to join in the heresy of the moment than former New Grass Revival member, Sam Bush. I have always loved this song and was pleased to hear Bush and company do it justice, in fact they may have even taken it up a notch. The best moment of Tall Fiddler is the title track. Tommy Emmanuel wrote the song and joins Cleveland and Flamekeeper on the track. Cleveland said when he first heard the song on Emmanuel’s 2017 Live at The Ryman release that he “thought it was fiddle tune” and boy was he right. I don’t think I can ever unhear the fiddle going forward. Jokingly, Emmanuel should have Cleveland arrested for stealing this song out from under him.
“Mountain Heartache” featuring Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas comes in a close second to “Tall Fiddler” and not because of the star power. The band raises their game and goes head to head with the vocals and Cleveland’s world class fiddling. Douglas stretches out and he and Cleveland are clearly having a great time with this song.
Regardless of the all-star supporting cast, don’t be misled because the album is 100% Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. Surrounding himself with top tier talent, Cleveland has given himself room to breathe without feeling like every note has to be his. Jasiah Shrode on banjo has a nice effortless style about his playing to immediately draws you in. Guitarist and lead vocalist Josh Richards is a standout player and his vocal ability allows the band to approach classics and new songs with confidence. Nathan Livers on Mandolin certainly gives Cleveland a run for his money. His fingers fly about and the mandolin sound is fantastic compliment to the virtuoso fiddle work. The band is tight and whenever a player steps out you can feel the joy in the moment. Tall Fiddler is one of those “lightning in a bottle” kinda moments. The game is elevated and the players either know it or feel it. It is polished without seeming sterile and loose enough without a sense of raggedness. If you are a bluegrass fan I think this album will quickly find a home among your favorites. If you aren’t necessarily into bluegrass I highly suggest a listen as the album, while firmly rooted in the genre, has a freshness and vitality about it that I think listeners will gravitate towards. https://www.flamekeeperband.com