“On Down the Line” by Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
On Down the Line
Compass Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you listen to bluegrass you need no introduction to Michael Cleveland. He’s been named IBMA fiddle player of the year ten times and won numerous other awards—and he surrounds himself with pickers of the same caliber. What makes the band and this CD so good? It has to be more than just Cleveland’s fiddle.

Right out of the gate they tackle a song not found in bluegrass repertoires: Julian Lennon’s “Too Late For Goodbyes.” Even with this band it doesn’t sound much like Bill Monroe bluegrass, but you can’t fail to appreciate the musicianship. Josh Richards, a southern Indiana native (Leota) like Cleveland (Charlestown), tears into it singing at a whirlwind pace, much faster than the 1984 original. He gets the high notes at the end of each phrase just as well as Lennon did. Gaven Largent plays a killer banjo—crisp, fast rolls with never a missed note, while Nathan Livers, a Louisville native, adds mandolin. “Johnny Thompson,” penned by Richards, moves along so fast you can barely keep your toe–tapping in sync but Livers and Largent never flinch at the challenge. Keeping the band on track is another Indiana native, Tyler Griffith, a multi–instrumentalist who thumps the bass in Flamekeeper.

Excellent singing and picking, good arrangements, so the other piece is good material. “That Ol’ Train” was co–penned by the late Ronny Scaife, one of Nashville’s hitmakers. It’s a fast, bluesy song along the lines of “Blue Train.” Cleveland picked two songs from Indiana friends he has played music with many times, Aubrey Holt’s “When the Warden Turns the Key” and his son, Tony Holt’s “Just Call Me Crazy.” The latter has a great country sound with a walking bass beat on the chorus while the former was done country–style by Aubrey Holt back in 1973.

Bluegrass Boy Tex Logan penned the oft–recorded “Come Along Jody,” a showpiece for Livers on the mandolin. Cleveland foregoes lyrics and bandmates to solo on “Jack O’ Diamonds,” showing his talents again on the fiddle.

Love songs, songs of sorrow and misery, beautiful songs like “The Garden Wall,” provide the  variety an album needs to keep listeners interested and Cleveland has met that mark. You expect great bluegrass from Michael Cleveland on the stage, on his CDs, or just jamming at a friend’s house—and he’s delivered yet again.