There were lots of famous and familiar faces in the crowd of bluegrass fans and fiddle enthusiasts who gathered at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville Tuesday night (Feb. 12) to view the premiere of the documentary, Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story.
A master stylist, Cleveland has won 11 fiddle player of the year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Assn., plus five additional IBMA distinctions for his band, Flamekeeper. What makes the 38-year-old virtuoso’s successes all the more notable is the fact that he was born blind and with a cleft palate and, while still young, lost most of the hearing in his left ear.
Watching the story of how Cleveland survived the odds — including a period of alcoholism — were such admirers as Country Music Hall of Fame members Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush and banjoist Béla Fleck (both alumni of New Grass Revival), guitarist Jeff White, dobrosist Rob Ickes, fiddlers Jason Carter and Becky Buller, and The Whites of Grand Ole Opry fame.
“It’s wicked to see how much music he pulls out of a bow,” Gill observes in the film. Fleck echoes that assessment and praises Cleveland’s “intensity of focus.” A blind friend and fellow musician remarks that Cleveland always plays as fiercely as if he’s doing his last show, and a band member conjectures Cleveland can play so loud and commandingly because he’s virtually deaf in the ear that rests on his fiddle.
The documentary is directed by John Presley and manages to be inspirational without lapsing into the maudlin concerning Cleveland’s handicaps. Apart from addressing his former drinking excesses, it reveals him to be a demanding bandleader and a blunt and occasionally harsh fiddle teacher (who conducts lessons by Skype as well as in person).
Cleveland began learning to play the fiddle when he was four. His grandparents took him to many bluegrass festivals, where he became particularly fond of the parking lot jam sessions that were open to anyone who wanted to play.
In a press release, Cleveland says he was initially ambivalent about agreeing to the documentary. “I have made it a point to keep the focus on the music and not on the fact that I am visually impaired, [but] I realized that this could be an inspiration to some young kid somewhere with a dream that looks as impossible as it seemed to me when I was growing up and dreaming of a career in music.”
Following the showing of the documentary, Cleveland and his band entertained the crowd with a short program of fiddle-centric tunes, ending with a paint-blistering version of “Orange Blossom Special” that also featured the fiddling wizardry of Carter, himself a five-time IBMA winner.
In the film, Cleveland acknowledges that “Orange Blossom Special” has become something of a fiddling cliché but explains that he revels in performing it because it was the song that motivated him to become a fiddler.
Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story will be released online through Amazon and other streaming platforms on March 1. It is also being made available on DVD and Blu-Ray.