There’s an energy and insistance to Michael Cleveland’s music that sounds fresh yet vaguely familiar- I had to do a little digging into the bluegrass historical archives to figure it out. Before I get to that game of bluegrass band version of Six Degrees from Jimmy Martin (well, actually, in this case, one, but as I said, we’ll get back to that in a bit), let’s get this out of the way: I think Michael Cleveland is the Kenny Baker/ Byron Berline of his generation. That is, he is not just a talented fiddler, he is utterly expressive with the fiddle, as if there is no separation between his musical thoughts and his beautiful, accurate and soulful fiddle playing.
The other musicians on this CD are top notch: Tom Adams, Marshall Wilborn, Jesse Brock, and Jesse Baker, on guitar, bass, mandolin and banjo, respectively- but it’s clear that MC’s fiddle is the heart of the band, both driving it and rising above and around the rhythm instruments. The band wrote most, but not all, of the songs, and with one or two exceptions the original material works very well. (“Monster Truck” and “Hard Time Banjo Blues” are just on this side of the novelty song divide, and I don’t think they bear up to repeated listening as well as the other original songs.) Two older songs given new life are Webb Pierce’s “Slowly” (listen to the original here and you can hardly recognize the uptempo and driving Flamekeeper version) and the Delmore Bros “I’ve Got the Railroad Blues.” Again, it’s like they took the laconic original version and put an engine in it.
Now, back to my original feeling that I’ve heard music like Flamekeeper’s somewhere before. . . ah, yes, the genealogy is clear: in this version of Flamekeeper (alas, the current band is totally different except for the bandleader), two of the five (Wilborn and Adams) used to play with the Johnson Mountain Boys, who were the previous era’s exemplars of that high-energy, forward-beat, chop-hard and don’t-let-up bluegrass style. The JMB, like MC and Flamekeeper, made even their slow ballads and gospel songs insistent – listen to “I’m Yours” on this album and compare it to “Let The Whole World Talk” by JMB and you’ll hear what I mean. Finally- if I haven’t convinced you by now, note that two songs on Fired Up were written by JMB members: “The Nights Are So Long” by Dudley Connell and “Going Back To Old Virginia” by David McLaughlin.
“Bigger Hands Than Mine”
In no way am I saying that Flamekeeper is derivative of JMB; rather, I think they’ve carved out similar and rarefied stylistic niches within the world of bluegrass music. Not every band can hit you with a wall of sound, as I once heard JMB described, but having heard MC and Flamekeeper both recorded and live, I can tell you, these guys can hit you with a wall of sound and draw you in to a bluegrass experience that is both utterly professional and full of soul and style.