"Untouchable." That's how Vince Gill describes the playing of bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland in the inspiring documentary about the Grammy-nominated musician's life, Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story. On his new album Tall Fiddler (Compass Records), Cleveland lives up to Gill's lofty praise, showing off the verve, dexterity and intensity that have made him one of the most transfixing performers today — of any genre.
It's that crossover appeal that distinguishes Tall Fiddler, a record that blends string- music with country, jam-grass with folk, and is geared to introduce Cleveland — who, as he talks about in the Flamekeeper film, overcame partial deafness and being born blind — to a wider audience. Yes, bluegrass may be the Indiana native's first love, but on this album, Cleveland rocks.
Listen to the way he kicks off the record, riffing with guitar hero Tommy Emmanuel on the title track. "Tall Fiddler" is a call-and-response battle between two expert duelers, each at the top of their game. He keeps the energy up on "Tarnation," an original composition with banjo visionary Bela Fleck that finds both players racing toward an explosive finish. And on "Tennessee Plates," he embraces the greasy, soulful stylings of Memphis, interpreting John Hiatt's irreverent tale of road trips and robberies with help from guest vocalist Sam Bush.
All of it is peppered with the same level of musical potency that first lit a fire in Cleveland, prompting him to form his band Flamekeeper and take the stage.
"I like music that has some intensity to it," he says. "I like players that may not be the smoothest or the prettiest, but when it's time to play, they just get in and get after it. I've tried to capture some of that here."
That isn't to say, however, that Tall Fiddler lacks for nuance. Rather, Cleveland knows exactly when to pull back and drop in some subtle, even unexpected notes. Chalk that up in part to the five-string fiddle — with its additional low-C string — that is his weapon of choice. On the rollicking "Five String Swing," he calls you to attention with a series of double-stops, drawing sweet, plucky sounds from his bow. Elsewhere, on "Lazy Katie," an instrumental written for his girlfriend, Cleveland is all precision and poise, allowing his fiddling to emerge unhurriedly in the spirit of the song's title.
His masterful playing attracts an all-star roster of guests on Tall Fiddler. No less than Del McCoury, a pillar of bluegrass, appears on the album, singing "Beauty of My Dreams" (Cleveland's favorite Del song) with Flamekeeper vocalist Josh Richards. Elsewhere, Dan Tyminski harmonizes with Richards on the chugging "Son of a Ramblin' Man" and the gorgeous "Mountain Heartache," also featuring Jerry Douglas on Dobro. Tim O'Brien and the Travelin' McCourys make appearances too, helping flesh out an album that, while a collaborative effort, is guided by the gifts of Michael Cleveland.
Gill is right to call Cleveland's skills "untouchable" in Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story. It can also be tempting to sum up his playing as effortless. But that'd be selling the musician short. His journey to a Grammy nomination and a record-setting 11 wins as Fiddle Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, among other IBMA honors, only came through hard work and indomitable spirit.
It's remarkable, superhuman even, to imagine what Cleveland had to overcome to become the bluegrass superstar he is today — even if he humbly prefers to joke about his height rather than laud his own talents.
"I guess I don't have to be an actual tall fiddler," Cleveland says of his album title.
On the contrary, Michael, you stand tall.