BY MARY Q. BURTON
It takes guts to tell your classically trained violin teacher at 4 years old that you want to play bluegrass music, but that’s exactly what Mike Cleveland did.
Originally from Henryville, Ind., and now residing in nearby Charlestown, Cleveland has always called the Metro area home, and thanks to the early influence and encouragement of his grandparents, he has made a career out of playing the fiddle.
Cleveland fondly recalls all of the open-air shows they took him to. He remembers the passion that all of the musicians, but more specifically the fiddle players, seemed to have. It’s a passion he quickly picked up on and carries with him to this day.
In his 27 years, Cleveland has made quite a mark, winning four International Bluegrass Music Association Fiddle Player of the Year awards and Instrumental Album of the Year. But he has never forgotten his original mentor, Mac McBane, whom he describes as a good old-time and bluegrass fiddle player.
“He really took the time to show me different things and jam,” Cleveland said. “I always had a lot of respect for that guy.”
Cleveland quickly made waves in bluegrass circles. By the time he was 13, he was asked to do something most musicians only dream of: perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with bluegrass icon Alison Krauss.
“Jamming with Alison and all those guys, man, that was a blast,” he said. “But walking out on that stage for the first time, well, anybody would be a nervous wreck.”
He has since released four albums on Rounder Records, one of which grew into his latest endeavor with the band Flamekeeper. The 2002 effort under the same name introduced Cleveland to singer and guitarist Audie Blaylock and mandolinist/vocalist Jesse Brock. They later brought in John Mark Batchelor on banjo and bassist Barry Reed, the first bass player they auditioned.
“He walked in and he just nailed it,” Cleveland said.
The band is working on an album they hope to release early next year, but Cleveland promises that people who see them this weekend at the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival will get an early preview of the new songs.
Clearly, Cleveland has overcome the stage fright of his early performances. Now you can tell he loves live performance.
“I like the stage personally just because you can hear the crowd’s reaction, and if the crowd is getting into it, of course you’re going to work that much harder,” he said. “The energy is a lot higher than in the studio.”
He doesn’t feel compelled to stick to the recorded versions of songs, either. Like any true musician, he takes on the challenges of improvising and often plays varied and extended versions of his tunes. “I like going out on a limb,” he says, “so I can try to get back.”
By the way, did you know Mike Cleveland has been blind since birth? He doesn’t dwell on it.
“Anybody that has ears and can hear can be affected by different music in different ways,” he said. “I don’t know how I’d be different from anybody else.”
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$6 (before 6 p.m.),
5-11 p.m. (Fri.),
4-11 p.m. (Sat.)
5 p.m. — Fresh Cut Grass
6 p.m. — Common Ground
7:15 p.m. — Southern Skye
8:15 p.m. — Hickory & Friends
9:45 p.m. — Hog Operation
4 p.m. — Whistlin’ Rufus
5 p.m. — Corn Island Band
6 p.m. — Cast Iron Airplane
7 p.m. — Relic
8 p.m. — The Cumberlands
9:15 p.m. — Mike Cleveland & Flamekeeper featuring Audie Blaylock