Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival
One of the foremost fiddlers of his generation, 37-year-old Michael Cleveland has charted an award-strewn course from child prodigy to leader of one of bluegrass’ most exciting groups, the five-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Instrumental Band of the Year, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper.
Michael Cleveland grew up in Charlestown, Indiana—just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky—surrounded by bluegrass music: his grandparents, while not musicians themselves, founded the Southern Indiana Bluegrass Association, a twice-monthly community gathering for the region’s many pickers and fiddlers. Reflecting on his childhood, Michael says, “I don’t remember NOT hearing bluegrass music”; at age four a local fiddler’s rendition of the iconic “Orange Blossom Special” inspired him to pick up a bow. However, finding a way to put bow to strings was a challenge for Cleveland, who has been blind since birth. Suzuki violin teachers at the Kentucky School for the Blind helped him get started with the fundamentals, and soon he was teaching them about the beauty of the local bluegrass tradition.
With mentoring by local fiddlers like “Mac” McBain and Jeff Guernsey, young Cleveland became a regular performer at local gatherings, and before age 10 was leading his own band. At age 13, he was part of the IBMA Bluegrass Youth All-Stars and appeared as a guest of Alison Krauss on the Grand Ole Opry, confirming his status as a rising star. After high school graduation, Cleveland quickly made a name for himself in Dale Ann Bradley’s band and with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. He played a role in the latter’s IBMA Entertainer of the Year honors in 2001—the same year he won the first of his astounding 10 IBMA Fiddler Performer of the Year awards.
Now he leads the powerhouse ensemble Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, where his bandmates are similarly steeped in the bluegrass tradition of Indiana and environs. Mandolinist Nathan Livers and guitarist Josh Richards both learned to play from family members, and have performed with Cleveland in formal and informal settings for over two decades. Newer to the ensemble, but with similarly deep roots in regional bluegrass, are Tyler Griffith on upright bass and Missouri’s Jasiah Shrode on banjo.
The story of Michael Cleveland’s journey to bluegrass stardom is the subject of a forthcoming documentary titled Flamekeeper—not just a nod to his red-hot group, but in recognition of Cleveland’s role in keeping the light of bluegrass burning bright, and inspiring his fans to follow their dreams. His solo album, Fiddler’s Dream, was nominated for a 2018 Grammy® for Best Bluegrass Album.