Where the Grass Is Blue

Michael Cleveland in Carlsbad

'I started playing the fiddle at the age of four," says Michael Cleveland. "I went to the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, where they taught the Suzuki method -- this guy from Japan, he invented this method of playing where it is taught mostly by ear." Cleveland, who was recently named the International Bluegrass Music Association's "Fiddle Player of the Year" for the fourth time, will perform with his band at the Carlsbad Village Theatre on Sunday, January 28.

"The first music I remember ever hearing was bluegrass," says Cleveland. According to the bluegrass association, this music has two defining characteristics: instrumentation, in that it is "played on acoustic stringed instruments, including the mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, string bass, and resophonic guitar [which is made of metal and produces a much louder sound]" and vocal style, often including "multipart, high, lonesome harmony." The name was taken from the popular bluegrass band of the late 1930s, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.

"My grandparents started taking me to these open-stage events and jam sessions in Indiana," Cleveland recalls. "When I first heard a fiddle, I knew that's what I wanted to play." The only difference between a violin and a fiddle, he says, is the style of music played. "Classical players [on violin] are very precise when it comes to bowing. Every bow has to be in a certain place for the down bow and the up bow -- you can't just play it at random."

In his article "Is That a Violin or a Fiddle?" for stringsmagazine.com, Gordon Swift writes that although fiddle music is sometimes faster than classic violin music, it is "technically less complex." However, the simple AABB structure, he continues, "opens up room for variations and impromptu embellishments; the fiddler's artistry lies in the nuance bowing and subtle variety with which these deceptively simple tunes are spun out."

Cleveland developed his fiddle-playing style by participating in jam sessions. "I went to all the festivals I could possibly go to around school," he remembers. His big break was when he was asked by Pete Warnick, banjo player for the band Hot Rize, to perform at an International Bluegrass Music Association awards show as one of the Bluegrass Youth All Stars. It was 1993 and Cleveland was 13 years old. That same year he was invited to play as country music star Alison Krauss's guest at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Much of Cleveland's inspiration comes from musicians who were before his time. "I'm a big fan of Benny Martin's fiddle playing. Chubby Wise was also a good fiddle player that I listened to a lot. I tried to incorporate a lot of their licks into my playing."

Benny Martin's "licks" include "a lot of fifths and double stops" -- fifths meaning five notes apart on a scale. Double stops are two notes that are played at the same time. Martin was also a "long-bow player," which means he used all of his bow, rather than playing to the middle only, as did most "old-time fiddle players." Cleveland believes Martin and Wise were two of the first long-bow-style fiddle players.

"Chubby didn't play as many double stops, but he had a great tone and when he would play, he could make a note swell -- he could play one note and make it sound full and rich and big as anything."

Cleveland has no other musicians in his family -- his father is a truck driver and his mother is a nurse -- but he attributes his success to his parents and grandparents. They made sure that he was able to attend every festival and jam session in which he was interested.

"I remember my dad telling me one time, 'Okay, we can do this as long as you want to do it, but when you get tired, you can quit.' My classical teacher would say, 'You need to make him practice three or four hours a day.' Of course I would practice, but it was not a consistent daily routine; I'd play for maybe five hours one day and none the next day. My dad would say, 'Well, if he wants to learn, he'll practice.' They were supportive, but if I ever said I was getting tired of it, that's it." -- Barbarella

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, featuring Audie Blaylock Sunday, January 28 5 p.m. Carlsbad Village Theatre 2822 State Street Carlsbad Cost: $15 in advance, $18 at the door Info: Theatre, 760-729-0089; tickets, 858-679-1225 www.carlsbadvillagetheatre.com/Calendar.htm

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