Leavin’ Town provides the perfect setting for Cleveland’s continued exploration of the fusion of original ideas with those from bluegrass music’s forefathers and showcases the countless talents of each group member.
While other Cleveland recordings have been predominantly instrumental, Leavin’ Town is balanced out by vocal solos, duets, and trios – creating the effect of what would likely be heard at a Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper concert. The material comes from sources as varied as 78 rpm records made in the 1950s (The Lonesome Pine Fiddler’s “I’m Feeling For You [But I Can’t Reach You]”) to compositions written by members of Flamekeeper within the last couple of years (Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Ridin’ This Train,” and “Kickin’ Back,” by Jesse Brock).
Cleveland is a five-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s [I.B.M.A.] Fiddle Player of the Year award who rose to prominence in the bands of Dale Ann Bradley and Rhonda Vincent. Leavin’ Town, Cleveland’s fourth album for Rounder and the first to feature the line-up of Jesse Brock, John Mark Batchelor, Todd Rakestraw and Marshall Wilborn, delivers the same high standard you’ve come to expect from Cleveland’s previous recordings – Let ‘Er Go Boys! (2006), Live At The Ragged Edge (2004) and Flame Keeper (2002) – each of which was awarded the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Instrumental Album of the Year”.
1. Sold Down the River 2:26
2. In My Mind to Ramble 3:02
3. My Blue Eyed Darling 3:42
4. I’m Feeling For You (but I Can’t Reach You) 2:29
5. Northern White Clouds 3:43
6. Troubles ’Round My Door 2:06
7. Leavin’ Town 2:23
8. Sunday Morning Christian 2:52
9. Jerusalem Ridge 4:37
10. I’m Ridin’ This Train 2:05
11. Come Spring 3:46
12. When You Were Mine 2:52
13. Kickin’ Back 2:02
14. Farewell for a Little While 3:37
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper features Union Station founding member Todd Rakestraw on guitar and lead vocals, former Lynn Morris Band mandolinist Jesse Brock on tenor vocals, John Mark Batchelor on banjo, and veteran bass player, singer and songwriter Marshall Wilborn.
Produced by Jeff White and Michael Cleveland
Recorded by Steve Chandler and John Nicholson at Hilltop Studios, Nashville, Tennessee.
Mixed by Steve, Jeff and Mike at Hilltop Studios.
Mastered by Toby Mountain at Northeastern Digital, Southborough, Massachusetts.
Notes by Tom Adams.
“It’s rare indeed for a traveling band of bluegrass musicians to continue making personal appearances for more than, say, ten or eleven decades. My advice to you fans of these Flamekeepers is to pack up the kids and go hear these nice boys.” – unidentified soothsayer interviewed in front of the Floyd Country Store, April, 2008.
Michael Cleveland: He’s back – back in the studio – and this time, he’s got his road band with him. “Flamekeeper – party of five, your groove is ready.” Ready and steady, my friend. Be it barnburners or ballads, this is bluegrass of the first magnitude. And your role in all of this? A matter of utmost importance, I assure you. That irresistible urge you feel to kick off your shoes just so you can get a good look at your toes diggin’ the all-natural Flamekeeper beat – go for it. The cry “Off with their shoes!” is fast-becoming an audience favorite at the band’s live shows, with home-grown variants of the phrase being spotted on t-shirts from the Hamptons to the Yukon.
Leavin’ Town, Michael’s fourth album for Rounder and the first to feature the line-up of Jesse Brock, John Mark Batchelor, Todd Rakestraw and Marshall Wilborn – the band you’ve seen onstage at festivals and music halls – delivers the same high standard you’ve come to expect from Michael’s previous recordings – Let ’Er Go Boys! (2006), Live At The Ragged Edge (2004) and Flame Keeper (2002) – each of which was awarded the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Instrumental Album of the Year.”
With Leavin’ Town, the focus shifts from a predominantly instrumental collection to one that presents a set of music that you’re likely to hear from Michael & company in concert. The balance of vocal combinations – solos, duets and trios – the varying tempos and themes, all serve to create for the listener (once that final note has faded out) an exquisite combination of lush satisfaction beset simultaneously with the intense desire to flip the disc over to see if maybe, just maybe, there’s a second set of music waiting on the other side simply because the guys just couldn’t stop playing.
Well, I have to tell you, your confidence in the band’s inability to stop the music is well-founded. It’s not uncommon for Mike and John Mark to stay up until 5:00 am playing fiddle and banjo duets. And a few weeks ago at Mike’s house, way past midnight, I witnessed Marshall pull out his notebook and bass and start singing a wonderful old Delmore Brothers song. Mike soon joined in on fiddle, and it wasn’t long before Todd, who had headed off to sleep after several hours of picking, came back down to the music room. “Man, I heard that from upstairs. That is the coolest tune.”
Todd Rakestraw, the group’s guitar player and lead vocalist, got his introduction to bluegrass from Flatt & Scruggs, first on the “Beverly Hillbillies” television show and later from the album, “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” Writing songs since he was thirteen, Todd’s musical influences also included big bands and fifties rock ‘n’ roll. Particular singers attracted his attention, most notably country music’s Merle Haggard and George Jones, and bluegrass pioneers, Bill Monroe and Jim & Jesse. In the early eighties Todd continued writing and singing while playing guitar with Don Brown and the Revenoors, a country-turned-bluegrass band from southern Indiana.
The name of Todd’s next band probably has a more familiar ring to it – Union Station. Founded in 1984 by Todd, John Pennell and Lonnie Meeker, Union Station later invited a young fiddler and singer from Champaign, Illinois to join the band – Alison Krauss. Three of the songs Todd wrote during his time with Union Station can be heard on Alison’s first two Rounder albums. Departing Union Station in 1986, by 1988 Todd decided to leave music altogether, a hiatus that lasted more than fifteen years. In 2005, Todd returned to the music scene with Timberline Drive and two years later became a member of Flamekeeper.
Twenty-one year-old John Mark Batchelor, from Back Swamp, North Carolina is making his recording debut with Leavin’ Town. Instantly taken with the banjo after seeing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” John Mark took up the banjo in 2002. Playing with North Carolina-based bands before Mike called last year and asked him to join Flamekeeper, John Mark says, “I love traditional ‘grass. I love playing Scruggs-style banjo.” When asked about playing hard-driving music in Mike’s band, John Mark laughs and says, “I couldn’t survive in another band. I can relate to this.”
You’ve heard Jesse Brock’s monster rhythmic chop and trademark solos on Michael’s previous studio albums, and now Leavin’ Town showcases not only Jesse’s mandolin playing but features his tenor vocals as well. Inspired to take up the mandolin at age nine, Jesse studied the playing of Doyle Lawson, Nate Bray and Bobby Osborne, among others. From his early days with his family band to the past decade as a member of groups led by Lynn Morris and Dale Ann Bradley, Jesse’s love for traditional bluegrass has remained steadfast. “We’re (Flamekeeper) all on the same page. We’re diggin’ it – and the deeper we can dig it, the better,” Jesse says of the band’s propensity for laying down a “traditional hard-driving groove.”
Marshall Wilborn, on bass and vocals, is a touchstone of solid and tasteful playing. A founding member of the Lynn Morris Band in 1988, he’s known also for his work with Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, the Johnson Mountain Boys and Longview. As a songwriter, you’ll find his work on four Rounder albums by the Lynn Morris Band as well as on recordings by Alison Krauss, the Johnson Mountain Boys, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and several others. When asked about playing music with Mike and the guys, Marshall responds with an enthusiastic, “What excites me is that everybody else is excited.”
Mike Cleveland, around whom the above aggregation revolves, has led a new generation of players to the roots of bluegrass. Mike’s phenomenal fiddling speaks volumes for tradition while infusing old and new tunes alike with exhilarating ideas that take the listener to both familiar and uncharted waters, seemingly at the same time. Ready to play at a moment’s notice, one of Mike’s favorite sayings is, “Let’s pick, man – we’ll wear it out!”
And “wear it out” they do. Each musician brings to the group a level of expertise combined with the know-how to deliver his part in such a way as to make it impossible for the other four not to get caught up in the moment. At every vocal turn and at every instrumental break, these guys are orbiting the same nucleus of desire to propel one another to a higher plane of excellence. When the conditions are just right – and in this group they are – the music and the musicians become a single entity.
Since the release of Let ’Er Go Boys! two years ago, Michael has been named IBMA’s “Fiddle Player of the Year” two more times (bringing his career total to five) and the touring group Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper featuring Audie Blaylock received the “Instrumental Group of the Year” award for 2007. So how does one go from being a stellar sideman, an in-demand session player, a Rounder recording artist, and then add to that the title of bandleader? “Basically, I just had new business cards printed, and it wasn’t long before we had gigs coming in left and right,” Mike laughs – most of the laughter stemming from the fact that he didn’t say those words at all – I just needed a humorous segue into the next section of who joined the band and in what order.
Okay, music historians, here’s the evolution of the Flamekeeper band through 2006 and 2007 – a tasty morsel for those of us who enjoy the genre of non-fiction known in the trade as “lists of proper nouns”: The original band consisted of Audie Blaylock, Barry Reed, Jeff Guernsey, and Pete Kelly, with Jesse Brock replacing Jeff Guernsey, Aaron McDaris replacing Pete Kelly, John Mark Batchelor replacing Aaron McDaris, Todd Rakestraw replacing Audie Blaylock and finally Marshall Wilborn replacing Barry Reed. Michael Cleveland considered replacing himself with himself just to make the band’s bio more consistent, with all current members having replaced former members, but decided against it just before the release of this CD.
Mike’s perseverance in the pursuit of assembling just the right players to work together both in the studio and on the road has fans cheering at the mere thought of being able to pop this disc into their car’s player on the way to and from a Flamekeeper gig. It’s overdrive on overload and the fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Such devotion, though, doesn’t flow only in one direction. A few anecdotes as to the lengths to which each band member has gone to give 110% to Flamekeeper followers are probably in order:
Jesse, the group’s fashion leader and chemist, has developed a special shoe polish that produces identical wavelengths and intensities of reflected light from each of his boots. Says Jesse, “A lot of people just won’t invest the time it takes to properly balance their stage footwear, but I feel it’s important. The fans deserve this kind of attention to detail.”
John Mark tells of the time he was tempted by aliens to show up late for a Flamekeeper gig. “I’d just left the house and was almost to Hargetts Store when this bright light came down right on the highway and these tall fellas got out and walked up to the car. One of them called me by name and started asking me about Earl Scruggs, but the other one interrupted and wanted to know if I used three fingers, or if it was two fingers and a thumb, then the first one jumped back in and asked did I call it a three-finger roll if I was only using two fingers. I was real polite, but I told them I couldn’t disappoint the fans and that I had to go. They said, ‘Okay’ and left, and I think that’s the last time anybody’s asked me about playing the banjo.”
Todd, in his role as the band’s animal hypnotist, has been helping Flamekeeper fans and their pets since joining the group in August, 2007. “A lot of times I’ll get to talking with folks at the record table and, you know, the topic of whether or not their pets enjoy bluegrass eventually comes up, and I’m just glad I can help. Let’s say you have a pet that’s into heavy metal or, there was this one man at the Gettysburg festival with a Corgi, and that dog listened to nothing but Prokofiev. Now, what I do is stare into that pet’s eyes for about three minutes – I mean three minutes where we’re really connecting – and the next thing you know, you’ve got yourself a little bluegrass buddy who loves the music just as much as you do. It’s a gift, really.”
Marshall, the group’s newest member, had his loyalty to the band’s fans tested when, shortly after joining Flamekeeper, he was invited for a re-match to box Del McCoury at the Parthenon in Nashville the same day that the band was scheduled to finish recording Leavin’ Town. Despite intense pressure from Del’s ringside manager, Marshall, of course, declined. The original match, an impromptu event in the Shoney’s parking lot near the Opry, was declared a draw after thirty minutes of the pair trading verbal jabs consisting entirely of “After you, Del” and “No, Marshall. You go ahead.”
As for Mike, he’s having an absolute blast taking Flamekeeper on the road. “I really enjoy meeting folks at the shows. Put that in the notes, ‘cause that’s the truth. Don’t go making up any story about how I whittled this fiddle bow from the rear passenger door of Jim McGuire’s 1947 Ford woodie station wagon.”
Well, for these five guys to hit the road, they need more than just a tank full of fuel, a spare set of strings and a laminated road atlas. It takes a devoted group of folks whose great ambition it is to enable the band to stay focused on the thing they love: the music. For his booking agent, Jim Roe, Mike has high praise. “The promoters that I’ve talked to,” Mike says, “they love working with him.” And not enough can be said for the amount of time John Cleveland, Mike’s dad, devotes to facilitating the band’s recording, rehearsal and travel schedules. Vicki Simmons is also on board, assisting John in the myriad tasks that go into developing the band’s career.
So how about some info on the fourteen tracks that make up the first Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper album? Comin’ right up! The music on Leavin’ Town comes from sources as varied as 78 rpm records made in the 1950s to compositions written by members of Flamekeeper within the last couple of years.
Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Ridin’ This Train” was originally written for an album released in 2007 by Timberline Drive. During a rehearsal with Mike and the guys Todd sang them the song and was greeted with a chorus of “Yeah, buddy. We’ll cut that one!”
“Kickin’ Back” is an intricate, driving mandolin instrumental from Jesse Brock. Writing the first part of the tune in 2001, it wasn’t until the band began selecting material for this album that Jesse brought the yet-to-be-completed tune to a rehearsal. The band proceeded to jam on the unfinished second part until the solos you hear on this studio recording emerged.
Marshall Wilborn’s vocal, “I’m Feeling for You (but I Can’t Reach You),” comes from a mid-fifties session for Victor by the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Marshall learned the song in the 1980s from an LP reissue of Victor 78s he bought from Curly Ray Cline, an original member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.
One of Flamekeeper’s most requested tunes, “Jerusalem Ridge,” is a tour de force featuring a fiddle/mandolin expedition into rhythmic, melodic and harmonic territory not usually visited by the band.
Two songs were introduced to Mike by Audie Blaylock, former member of Flamekeeper. “The first person I ever heard sing ‘My Blue Eyed Darling’ was Audie,” Mike notes. Audie also brought a second song to the band, “When You Were Mine,” written and recorded by the Virginia-based band, Phoenix, in 2006.
Mike brought “Sold Down the River” to the band after listening to versions by both Danny Paisley and Bill Monroe. The instrumental “Northern White Clouds” comes from Mike’s collection of Bill Monroe CDs, this one of a live recording of the 1990 Bean Blossom Festival.
Pete Wernick penned two of the songs featured on Leavin’ Town. “We were looking for a fast tune for the record – and we found one,” Mike says of the album’s title track. Another one of Pete’s songs (and the first song he ever wrote), “In My Mind to Ramble,” was sent to the band by Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin.
The ubiquitous telephone was directly responsible for a couple of songs being selected for the album. Ken Irwin called Mike one day and started playing songs to him over the phone. When Mike heard “Come Spring” by the Cooke Duet, he told Ken, “That’s one we’ll cut.” Roger Brock and Lloyd Johnson started writing “Sunday Morning Christian” while talking on the phone, getting together a short while later to finish it. Mike heard Roger sing the song at a jam session and asked him, “Man, has anyone recorded that? I’d like to do it.”
Sometimes it just takes a friend who’s at your house listening to music with you to plant the idea for recording a song. Mike’s friend Brian Leaver suggested the band record “Troubles ’Round My Door.”
Finally, Chris Stuart’s touching story, “Farewell for a Little While,” closes the album with a song that Mike learned from an Eric Uglum album about four years ago. The title line is based on the epitaph from Carter Stanley’s original gravestone at McClure, Virginia.
Well folks, you’re nearing the end of this portion of the ink and paper presentation of Leavin’ Town. You’re welcome to manually restart the liner notes by flipping back through the pages of this booklet at any time. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already designated some or all of the tracks as favorites, I thought I would leave you with a couple of magic moments that made me hit the rewind button more than once.
“In My Mind to Ramble” has everything you’d want in a traditional bluegrass song. The unrelenting forward momentum, the soaring vocals, and the instrumental solos and backup are a textbook example of classic ‘grass played to perfection by musicians who’ve internalized the heart and soul of the music they love. Lastly, the performance of “My Blue Eyed Darling” takes me back to the Grand Ole Opry of the ’50s and ’60s. I can feel the Ryman stage and the spirit of that pure country sound. It’s that country and it’s that good – Todd’s rich, expressive voice, the vocal harmonies on the chorus, Michael’s fiddle turnaround – you’re there; just close your eyes and you’re there.
Real bluegrass. Real country. Real music from Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper.
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
p & © 2008 Rounder Records Corp.
Manufactured in the USA.