If there’s one thing to know about renowned fiddle virtuoso Michael Cleveland, it’s that he’s fearless.
Armed with his bow and fiddle, Cleveland has been named IBMA’s “Fiddler of the Year” a whopping 12 times, and in 2018 he was inducted into the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame. The list of accolades goes on for miles, and so too does his list of notable collaborators.
In 2006, Cleveland formed his band, Flamekeeper, with fellow musicians Josh Richards (guitar), Chris Douglas (bass), Nathan Livers (mandolin), and Jasiah Shrode (banjo). Cleveland is known as one of the modern bluegrass greats, and his latest release serves as a strong reminder.
Produced by Jeff White, Sean Sullivan, and Cleveland, Lovin’ of the Game – which officially dropped March 3rd via Compass Records – features a who’s who of heavy hitters from Vince Gill, to Billy Strings, to Béla Fleck, and many more. The 12-track record is a true testament to the power of sonic fusion among innovators of bluegrass and roots music. Rollicking fiddle mingles with sultry strings and energetic down-home vocals, providing listeners with a masterclass in collaboration.
The album shoots out of a cannon with “Thousand Dollar Holler,” a shining solo moment for Cleveland and his fiddle, before getting into the notable list of featured guests. It buzzes with technical proficiency and creative prowess, delivering an unmatched roots-fueled energy. With just the first listen, it’s no wonder that Cleveland has captured the eyes and ears of audiences around the world.
Cleveland’s bluegrassed-up version of Texas rocker Joe Ely’s “For Your Love” – which was a January single – features the musical stylings of White and multi-award winner and all around all-star Billy Strings. Cleveland takes some exciting creative liberties here, diverging from traditional bluegrass fiddle to integrate the original tune’s country-rock nature. This track draws upon the album’s larger theme of letting go and embracing the art of genuine musicianship in the moment, sublimely enhanced by the vocal harmonies of White and Strings.
Another notable track on the album, “Sunny Days (Are Comin’ Once Again)” is a hopeful track about bright futures. With another modern roots icon on the track, Dan Tyminski’s mandolin and harmonies with White can cheer up even the cloudiest of listeners. Cleveland reflects, “I first heard ‘Sunny Days (Are Comin’ Once Again)’ in 2020 when we were in the middle of the COVID pandemic and everything was shut down. The band wasn’t playing, and if it hadn’t been for all the great sessions I got to play on from home during that time, I probably would’ve gone out of my mind.”
It seems those sunny days have certainly come back around.
After songs featuring modern legends like Tim O’ Brien and Jerry Douglas among others, the album closes with its title track, “The Lovin’ of the Game.” It’s a satisfying sendoff featuring Cleveland’s band, Flamekeeper. The lingering sound of fiery fiddle carries us out under harmonies of “Where I’m going has no end / What I’m seeking has no name / Oh the treasure’s not for taking / It’s the lovin’ of the game.”
The album chronicles Cleveland’s experimentation in pushing his own boundaries as a musician, culminating in a listening experience that spans the depths of bluegrass and roots music. This final track speaks to that sense of musicianship. There’s always room to grow, explore, and connect with fellow lovers of the game.
For more on Cleveland’s unique path to music mastery, he’s the subject of the feature length documentary, “Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story,” which was released in 2019.