The critics are raving about On Down the Line, the latest Compass disc from bluegrass heavy-hitters Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper.
The leader of the band says they are humbled by the kind words the project has received. “It’s been really great to have it out,” he tells Billboard. “We’ve gotten a lot of great response to it, and a lot of great reviews. There’s a lot of great original material, and we’re getting a lot of airplay, so it’s been really awesome.”
Cleveland tells Billboard that Flamekeeper (consisting of banjo player Glenn Gibson, Nathan Livers on the mandolin, bass player Tyler Griffith and guitarist Joshua Richards) is a blast to play with on stage. “We have such a great band. With this album, I think we’re establishing our own sound, which I think is something we’ve been working really hard at it.” Having such talented players around helps him to relax and focus on the task at hand. “You don’t have to worry about it. It’s there. All you have to worry about is you.”
One of the most awarded fiddle players in the business — with nine IBMA trophies alone to his credit — Cleveland says he considers it an honor to be thought of so highly. “I’ve been fortunate, and it’s always an honor when anyone nominates you for an award and they like what you do. I just love to play.”
One of the highlights on the album is the upbeat “Fiddlin’ Joe,” which was written by a longtime friend. “That’s just a happy song, one that was given to us by a songwriter named Mark Brinkman. He had sent us songs in the past, but nothing had ever really worked out for us. He sent it to us a year ago, and he wanted us to hear it before he played it for anyone else. We came up with an arrangement right off the bat, and it just worked.”
Cleveland has had his share of obstacles to face over the years — the primary one being his blindness — but he says it never affected his will to play or his passion for the music. “I never really thought about it too much. But at the school I went to — the Kentucky School of the Blind — they had a strings program. I got started there. I knew at that time I wanted to play bluegrass, and one day the music teacher asked me what I knew about the violin. I told him I didn’t know much about the violin, but I knew quite a bit about the fiddle. I wanted to learn how to play bluegrass and wanted to learn to play ‘Orange Blossom Special.’ My grandparents took me to all the bluegrass events from the time I was 6 months old,” he recalls.
The band is currently taking a break from the road through the end of the year, but will be firing up the bus in January 2015 — with dates on the books all the way through September. Maintaining a stage presence in the bluegrass world is vital to promoting a career, Cleveland says. “It’s very important, just like having a new record out. Being out playing shows is very crucial. We’ve got a great booking agent in Jim Roe, and he keeps us going.”