Add Henryville, Indiana to the growing list of little-known music meccas.
Located about 15 minutes across the Ohio River from Louisville, the city has contributed to the bluegrass world one of the most celebrated and resourceful fiddlers to gain prominence over the past decade. His name is Michael Cleveland, and aside from picking alongside two generations of master instrumentalists, he has been named fiddle player of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association nine times since 2001.
That’s not all Henryville has to offer, however. This week, for the next-to-last concert in this summer’s Southland Jamboree series, the city is sending us Cleveland and fellow Henryville fiddler/educator Jeff Guernsey for an evening of bluegrass-inspired duets.
For Cleveland, who usually fronts his own band, Flamekeeper, the chance to rekindle a longtime musical friendship is like a homecoming away from home.
“Jeff was just one of the great players around the Southern Indiana area when I was growing up,” Cleveland said. “Now he would kill me if he heard me saying this, but he’s probably one of the greatest musicians in the world because his knowledge of music in all different styles is just so vast. He’s an inspiration to me still. I continue to learn from him every chance I get.”
At 33, Cleveland is already a remarkably learned player. Taking to the fiddle at age four, he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at 13 by playing alongside Alison Krauss. There also have been performance meetings over the years with scores of bluegrass forefathers, including Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley and Kentucky’s own J.D. Crowe.
But one artist proved to be an especially far-reaching influence: guitarist Doc Watson. It wasn’t just the scholarly, expansive nature of Watson’s music (where bluegrass sat side by side with numerous country and folk traditions and a sense of masterful instrumental improvising). In Watson, Cleveland found an artist with whom he shared something profoundly personal and non-musical: blindness.
Watson lost his sight in his infancy. Cleveland was born blind.
“When I was about seven or eight years old, I heard Doc Watson playing on The Nashville Network,” Cleveland said. “That’s when I found out that you can do this and be visually impaired, that there were people playing this music that were actually making money. And that just blew my mind. Doc was making musical history. From then on, I just dreamed of being in a touring band. I remember having dreams about it and everything. It was pretty amazing.
“There was this personality to Doc’s records and his live shows. One record that comes to mind particularly was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (the groundbreaking 1972 album in which the Dirt Band enlisted a host of pioneering country and folk elders as guests). The thing I really enjoyed about that was all the dialogue in the studio where they are all sitting around and talking. There is a conversation between Doc and Merle Travis where Doc is discussing arrangements and talking to Vassar Clements about when to come in on a song. Doc just sounded like such a nice guy. That personality just made a huge impression on me. Then when I got to meet him when I was 13, he was just like that. That’s hard to say about a lot of people. But that’s just how Doc was every time I was around him.”
As important as Watson was to Cleveland on a personal and professional level, it was the work of two current bluegrass women – Rhonda Vincent and Kentucky native Dale Ann Bradley – that placed Cleveland’s music before an audience. His work in their bands led to the formation of Flamekeeper and the lasting recognition of the IBMA.
“When I was young and just starting to play out on the road, of course I had about a million licks and I tried to throw them all into every song I played. So that didn’t work out too well. But with Dale Ann and Rhonda, I learned how to play with a singer more. That really helped.
“Rhonda, especially, had a knack for keeping an audience interested and sensing when to play an uptempo tune or a fiddle or banjo tune that would get people enthused. Dale Ann was always so great to work for, too. She was just so laid-back. She was like, ‘However you want to play.’ If she had any suggestions, she would make them. But she basically let the musicians in her band play their way. It was such a good experience getting to learn and play with both of them.”
This week, Cleveland will take his music to Lexington but will draw inspiration from his Henryville home by teaming again with Guernsey.
“To be honest, I have no idea what we will be playing exactly. I’d say most of it will be bluegrass or old-time sounding things. But we’ve played together for years. I know it will be fun.”
Michael Cleveland and Jeff Guernsey perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 27 for Southland Jamboree, behind Collins Bowling Center, 205 Southland Drive. Admission is free. For more info go towww.southlandjamboree.org.