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Michael Cleveland

Fiddler's Dream – 2016 (Compass)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Michael Cleveland

"Solo" albums often turn out to be the result of a standout musician (bandleader or member) recruiting a few "special guests" to augment his regular band mates to record material that, in the end, doesn't seem all that "solo." In the case of fiddler extraordinaire Michael Cleveland, however, his first "solo" release in several years features nary a member of his longtime band Flamekeeper, opting instead for a cast of the leading lights of many of the bands that Cleveland shares festival stages with on a regular basis - Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Jeff White and Barry Bales, to name a few.

With only 3 of the 13 tracks featuring vocals, "Fiddler's Dream" also runs a risk common to all, or mostly instrumental albums - that the tracks will end up sounding more or less the same. Cleveland avoids this trap in large part simply because, well, he's Michael Cleveland, winner of 10 of the last 16 IBMA Fiddler Of The Year awards, a guy whose touch and expertise on his instrument go far beyond simply playing faster than anyone else.

A striking example comes on the back-to-back pairing of Bill Monroe's "Tall Timbers," a tune in the frenetic style that characterized much of his work, followed by Cleveland's "Blues For Bill," a more contemplative and somber tune that recalls Monroe's version of "Evening Prayer Blues," a tune popularized by early Opry star DeFord Bailey. On "Henryville," Cleveland calls in Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band, and one of the few to sneak an IBMA award out from under Cleveland in this century) for some standout twin fiddle work.

For what is possibly the choicest cut, though, Cleveland gets Carter to put his fiddle down and contribute the lead vocal on "Where Is Your Heart Tonight?," penned by Nashville Golden Era songsmiths Boudleaux Bryant, Robert Castelow and Benny Martin (Martin was also a great fiddler whom Cleveland seems clearly to have been inspired by). Carter delivers a fine performance, and Cleveland's arrangement proves that adding pedal steel (Paul Franklin) to a bluegrass setting doesn't bring about the Apocalypse.

And in fact, Cleveland succeeds at all this because, all the bluegrass awards notwithstanding, it's more accurate to describe him as a "country" fiddler who gets much more out of his fiddle than breakdowns. He creates many moods, doesn't hesitate to go outside the usual parameters of bluegrass, and no two of these tracks sound alike. That's actually pretty hard to do, but Cleveland is an extraordinarily talented guy.