Michael Cleveland is an absolute delight, and if you have any cause to doubt it, then have a listen to “Jack O Diamonds” from his latest release, On Down the Line. It’s the standard old-time fiddle tune, though he fills it with nods, winks, chuckles, in-jokes, and punch lines. Yes, he’s a master of the instrument, but that’s not what Cleveland is about. He’s about having a lot of fun, and he does, and he lets us have a lot of fun too.
Indeed, pieces like “Jack O Diamonds” can often serve as a key to understanding a musician’s playing, and what they bring to their instrument generally. Here’s an interesting experiment: listen to Bruce Molsky play “Jack O’ Diamonds” (see video below) in comparison with what Cleveland does with the tune. Molsky is an absolute master, and his take on the piece reveals his musical fingerprint as readily as Cleveland’s does. Molsky keeps it in the realm of old-time fiddling—there is no syncopation, vibrato and bent notes are used sparingly. He catches the lower strings as a means of clarifying the pulse, and wonderfully accompanies himself with double stops and drones. The hiccoughs—the plucked notes—are static triplets. (For that matter, Tim O’Brien does a lovely version of the piece on Songs from the Mountain, and it, too, provides another nice comparison.)
It’s a delight, but it’s very different than what Cleveland does, which is to place the piece more clearly within a bluegrass context. From the first bent note, we know that that this is Cleveland territory, and he’s really “playing” the piece in the truest sense of the word. He’s quoting phrases from bluegrass, and even a nod here and there to the jazz end of the spectrum. He’s adjusting the chord accompaniment, dropping a tone here or there, or adding a minor—things that Molsky doesn’t do.
It’s not about better or worse, but how both musicians are using the piece to show what they, as musicians, are bringing to the music. If someone were unfamiliar with Cleveland, I’d probably suggest that they listen to “Jack O’ Diamonds” first, and then go back to the start of the album. Once we’ve clued into Cleveland’s musical personality, we can then see what he’s doing in all the other pieces on this album. They, too, are full of nods and winks, a masterful presentation that includes a wonderful sense of humor, empathy, and joy. You just can’t help but smile from beginning to end.
The band couldn’t be more solid or clean, and on this release are perhaps even excelling themselves. Cleveland gets lead billing, but he doesn’t hog the spotlight at all. The voices of the others come through, including the vocals, with some standouts in “The Sunny Side of Town,” “Fiddlin’ Joe,” and “The Garden Wall.”
“The Sunny Side Of Town”
The album ends with “The Orange Blossom Special” which is, inevitably, a piece that Cleveland has been playing since he was a child. There is video of him at perhaps 12 years of age playing it with Doc Watson (see video below). They are backstage at the IBMA—the clip is from the film Bluegrass Journey—and Pete Wernick in the background just beaming with delight. There is a moment on the video which I think of whenever I see Cleveland: Watson asks if he has been blind since birth, and Cleveland says “yeah, but I don’t think of it too much. You know, there are some things I can’t do, but I’m going to make do with what I can do.” Like I said, a delight. I think we can all learn something from Michael Cleveland, and in the meantime, we have albums like On Down the Line. Without a doubt, it’s some of the best new music you’ll hear this year.