He also had the benefit of apprenticing in the bands of two of the hardest-working women in bluegrass in Vincent and Bradley, and makes a point to pay tribute to Bradley's longtime partner Vicki Simmons as well. "I knew there was a lot of work involved, but you really don't know until you undertake it all. We're lucky enough to have a booking agent, but it still keeps you pretty busy, making sure everything's the way it needs to be. Rhonda and Vicki Simmons, who booked Dale Ann Bradley's band so many years, they are both very business-savvy people, you know, and they really know everything there is to know about this business."
Being a part of Vincent's high-octane stage show turned out to be an education in showmanship in itself.
"One thing I learned from Rhonda, especially, is you've gotta keep people interested on stage. If Rhonda's on stage, and she sees one person nodding off and falling asleep, there's gonna be a fast fiddle tune or a fast banjo tune, even if there was supposed to be a slow tune. She has good instincts about the crowd, she can measure the crowd's reaction, and she knows how to keep them interested."
Although Flamekeeper has been successful to the tune of 100-plus gigs each of the last couple of years, "Leavin' Town" is their first attempt to commit their driving sound to record. The 14 tracks feature original songs by Rakestraw, Chris Stuart, Pete Wernick, Harley Allen and others, as well as instrumentals ("Kickin' Back") by Brock and Bill Monroe.
In fact, the disc echoes Cleveland's fondness for the music of Monroe, both instrumentally and vocally, and one of the most striking cuts is a version of Monroe's classic instrumental "Jerusalem Ridge" done as a duet between Cleveland and Brock.
"That kind of evolved, I guess you could say. Before we really got this band under way, I was playing some shows with Audie Blaylock, who was the guitar player in (Rhonda's) band...and he had a fiddle player, Patrick McAvinue. Me and (Patrick) just played that tune as a duet. Then, when Flamekeeper started going out and doing shows, we just kinda started doing it with me, and Jesse and added a little bit to it - it's a little bit different every time we play it."
A couple of other tunes, "Sunday Morning Christian" and "Troubles 'Round My Door" give Cleveland a chance to show off his guitar chops as well.
"I started playing guitar when I was 12. I've played guitar off and on, and I never did do it on the road or anything like that, but I played on a couple of my (solo) records, just a tune here or there and just doing different sessions and stuff. I love playing guitar, I just don't do it enough."
"Leavin' Town" turned out to be an album that's strong and well-balanced from beginning to end, and Cleveland seems pleased with it. Asked to name his favorite cut, he thinks a few moments and says, "I've got two of 'em. I would say 'Jerusalem Ridge', and I would say 'When You Were Mine'. I just thought those two came out really well. You have an idea when you go in there what everything's gonna sound like, but to hear everything done is a different thing entirely. Sometimes you get something totally different than what you go in there expecting to have."
Like most bluegrass bandleaders, Cleveland has had to deal with the comings and goings of band members that are simply a part of the business. And, even when things seem like they're going to be relatively settled for a while, the unexpected has a way of coming around. He mentions that Batchelor is dealing with some medical issues that have kept him off the road for a while. At the top levels of bluegrass that Cleveland now inhabits, it's not too hard to find fill-ins who are more than competent, but he clearly is anxious to have his banjo player back and healthy, ready to get back out on the road.
Cleveland doesn't want to look too far down the road, but is confident that "Leavin' Town" will be the next step on his musical journey. "We're always looking for new material, and we've got a few tunes that we're thinking about recording, you've always got to look and be prepared when it's time to go in again. But I think we're gonna just ride this one for a little while and then start work on the next one."