Award-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland and his band Flamekeeper will play their first show for Augusta area bluegrass lovers at The Imperial Theatre on Dec. 16.
As featured artists in the Morris Museum of Art’s Budweiser True Music Southern Soul and Song series, they will share the stage with Dale Ann Bradley.
It’s a special reunion for Cleveland. His first job as a fiddler was playing for Bradley, he said during a telephone interview from Charlestown, Ind.
After high school, Cleveland, 31, toured with Bradley and Coon Creek before joining Rhonda Vincent and The Rage in 2000. He returned to work with The Dale Ann Bradley Band for about five years before starting his own band. Other members of Flamekeeper have also played with Bradley.
“She’s one of the most incredible singers ever. She’s right up there with Alison Krauss, in my opinion,” Cleveland said. “She’s one of these singers that you could just about tune your instrument to her voice. I’ve never heard her sing flat or sharp or anything. I don’t think she could sing out of tune if she tried. There’s not a lot of singers that can do that. She’s pretty amazing.”
Named after Cleveland’s first solo album, Flamekeeper formed in 2006. Band members are Blake Bowen (vocals, bass), Glenn Gibson (banjo), Ashby Frank (vocals, mandolin) and Charlie Lawson (vocals, guitar). Bowen won’t be at the Imperial Theatre show because he’s getting married near that date, so Ron Shuffler will fill in for him, Cleveland said.
Cleveland said Flamekeeper plays “traditional bluegrass with a modern edge.”
“We’re influenced by people like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Don Reno, Red Smiley and The Stanley Brothers. We play new music, but we try to play it in a real traditional way. But at the same time, we add our own stuff to it,” Cleveland said.
Originally from Henryville, Ind., Cleveland started playing the fiddle at age 4. His grandparents were instrumental in fostering his love for bluegrass. They began taking him to shows when he was 6 months old. At 4, he heard a fiddler play Orange Blossom Special.
“That just fascinated me. I knew from then on I just had to take up the fiddle, if only to learn that one song,” Cleveland said.
He also took classical violin classes at school. After learning a few tunes on his fiddle, Cleveland went out to play at local jams.
“We’ve got some good musicians around this area. I was fortunate to be able to learn from some of the best. A lot of them never did go out on the road and play. They had families and stuff like that, but they were good, local pickers who could have played on the road if they wanted to.”
One of his major influences is Jeff Guernsey, a touring fiddler he considers one of the “most incredible musicians I’ve ever heard.”
“When I got a little older and found out people like Doc Watson, Ronnie Milsap and Ray Charles were able to do it (play music) for a living, that was it for me. I knew that I wanted to be able to do that,” Cleveland said.