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Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper

Fired Up – 2011 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Larry Stephens

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CDs by Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper

Some CDs labeled "bluegrass" are like powdered eggs and turkey bacon: they just don't hit the mark. If it's a Michael Cleveland CD then you know it will be the real deal. "Flamekeeper" is centered on Cleveland and his fabulous talent on the fiddle (and other instruments, too). Other Flamekeeper members are Tom Adams (Blue Highway, Johnson Mountain Boys) on guitar and lead vocals, Marshall Willborn (Lynn Morris Band) on bass, Jessie Brock on mandolin and Jessie Baker (now with Quicksilver) on banjo. This is a fine group of musicians, and the instrumental support on this CD is excellent.

There's an interesting mixture of band-member songs and independent songwriters. Their version of Slowly, a giant hit for Webb Pierce in 1954 (with a new verse by Adams) is a far cry from Pierce's plaintive ballad. It makes a good bluegrass number, but may make you squirm if you are a fan of Pierce's version. On the other hand, I've Got The Railroad Blues is a nice, up-tempo version of the 1937 Delmore Brothers' hit and features a nice break on the bass by lead singer Willborn.

Bigger Hands Than Mine is the CD's gospel number. Written and sung by Willborn, inspired by his wife's (Lynn Morris) recovery after a stroke, it's a song of courage, perseverance and inspiration. Goin' Up Dry Branch is a Buddy Spicher-inspired tune originally recorded by Jimmy Martin. While not played at breakneck speed (as so many CD instrumentals are), it is driven by Willborn's bass and is a good bluegrass instrumental.

From country-tinged, shuffle beat (Adams' I'm Yours) to bluesy bluegrass (Brock's Untrue Blues) to Tom T. Hall storytelling (I'm Gonna Ride That Steamboat) - with some outlaw novelty (Monster Truck) thrown in - this is bluegrass that's as good as it gets.