“…of course playing’s, it’s always fun to play good music, especially when the crowds into it; you can’t beat it. It’s pretty incredible.”
The Carroll Arts Center lobby was oddly empty, and as I walked up to their office windows and asked if the band that was performing that night was in the theatre, they looked at me as if I had six heads.
Before I’d gotten too far into calling their PR person, Kimberly, in walked Josh (the band’s guitarist) and the evening of great music and interesting stories began.
I introduced myself, shaking his hand letting him know that I work with both the McDaniel Free Press and Common Ground on the Hill. He led me around the back of the Carroll Arts Center as the band’s bus pulled up to the loading dock.
All the instruments were in the greenroom as I approached Michael Cleveland, the head of the band, and began the interview.
Q: How long have you been performing?
Michael: About thirty years now, I think. Yeah, because I’m 33 now.
I glanced around at the members, Josh pulling out his guitar, Tyler their bass player on the phone taking care of some personal business, Brian opening his banjo case, and Nathan beginning to change out the strings on his Mandolin. Michael even opened his fiddle case as he spoke with me.
Q: Has it always just been you guys?
Michael: No, no, it’s good you’ve mentioned that. A lot of the guys I’ve known for years. The mandolin player [Nathan] and I, we first met when I was 12 [and] he was 16. Josh the guitar player, we kind of grew up together, around the same local venues jam sessions and stuff. And his dad played music too.
Our normal banjo player is feeling a little under the weather—he won’t be able to make it. So we got a good friend of ours Brian to play the banjo with us today, and I’ve known him for about 16 years or something like that.
We all kind of knew the bass player Tyler before he tried out and got the gig. It’s funny you know, I knew all these guys but never thought it would work out us being in a band together.
I started this in 2006, the band called Flamekeeper, with different band names. So same band name but different members throughout the years, and it worked out, it worked out great. It’s cool because we all know each other, we’ve known each other for years.
Q: Well when you say locally, locally means where for you?
Michael: I’m from Indiana. We all are from around Indiana. We’re based out of Charleston, Indiana. That’s where I live and that’s where Nathan lives.
Brian, the banjo player lives in Bedford and Tyler lives in Avon and Josh lives in Scottsburg. Most of us are from Southern Indiana.
It didn’t start out that way—we used to have people spread out everywhere. At one point I had one guy from Pennsylvania, one guy from Virginia, one from Tennessee, one from Maine, and me in Indiana. It kind of made it hard to rehearse.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about performing? How much do you guys hate the traveling?
Michael: We don’t hate the traveling. I don’t think you can do this and hate the traveling. That’s pretty much what it’s all about. And of course playing’s, it’s always fun to play good music especially when the crowd’s into it—you can’t beat it. It’s pretty incredible.
Have you guys been outside the states anywhere?
Michael: Yeah we’ve been to Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, you know, pretty much an international touring band.
I like playing in this area too, there are a lot of good players here. A lot of good music came out of Maryland, West Virginia. There are a lot of good ones.
At this point Mike (as he’s called by his band mates) pulls out his fiddle and begins to tune. I let him be so that he could focus and not have to worry about answering questions. I turned to some of the other band members who had been sitting around for a bit, playing music softly in the background, as they too, tuned and listened to their instruments to make sure they were doing well, to see what they had to say.
“It takes a while to change ‘em,” says Nathan as he sits pouring over his mandolin, changing its eight strings. The others have been sitting around.
Q: How many strings do you guys break in a given show?
Nathan: We try not to break any. That’s why we change it ahead of time.
Josh: [Laughing] Yeah I try to change it before every show.
Mike had pulled out his fiddle when Nathan turned to him.
“Did he ask you about your fiddle?” he said to Mike.
“Did you ask him about his fiddle?” he asked me.
“No, no,” said Mike as he pulled the fiddle out of its case. I knew what my next question was.
Q: So what’s special about your fiddle?
Michael: Benny Martin, a great bluegrass fiddle player, he came up with a great eight-string fiddle. Benny was kind of one of my idols. I used to listen to his records all the time and wonder how he got his fiddle to sound like two.
Randy Godman, he was a Benny Martin fan as well, and he was into building fiddles. He came up with this eight-string fiddle here. He built it, I think he built this originally for himself and he ended up selling it to me a couple years ago.
Yeah he was going to call it the Big Tiger, which was Benny’s nickname. It’s pretty cool, but it’s got such a weird tuning that you can only play certain tunes on it.
Q: The fiddle’s tuning restricts what you can play?
Michael: Yeah, so a regular fiddle only has four strings: G, D, A, and E. This isn’t tuned in pairs, like a mandolin, which has the same number of strings. [Nathan’s] got eight strings, but he’s got two pairs of strings tuned to the same note, a pair of G’s, a pair of D’s and a pair of A’s. This fiddle, each pair of strings is tuned in harmony with the other.
I finally put my recorder down and let the guys warm up. It was close to sound check and they needed to start practicing together, specifically so that Brian, their impromptu banjo player, could get better used to playing with the group—not that he needed it. He played as if he’d been with them for the last ten years. There was definitely a musical chemistry amongst the four friends.
I kept this in mind as, an hour and half later, the lights dimmed and my mother and I sat in the back of the audience, watching the group come out and start to play. They were at home on that stage, and at home being in front of an audience, sharing their music and a little bit of themselves with each group they leave behind.
As I got up during intermission to leave, having passed an all too quick hour drinking in the delicious combination of fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass, I regretted the fact that I had to leave early. Seeing the group perform was one thing, but being able to go and talk to them afterwards would have been phenomenal. I guess I’ll just have to wait until the next time they’re in the area.
You can find Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper on iTunes, Spotify, and Grooveshark.