For much of the calendar year, Michael Cleveland furthers his reputation as one of bluegrass music's most prestigious instrumentalists — an accolade supported by the nine trophies he has collected since 2001 as Fiddle Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Usually, his long-running ensemble Flamekeeper supports him, both on record and on the road. But once a year, Cleveland gives the band a break so he can reteam with a key musical inspiration — multi-instrumentalist and educator Jeff Guernsey.
The duo's setting of choice is the free Lexington-based summer bluegrass series known at Southland Jamboree.
"It's kind of an odd situation because we're keeping so busy that we don't get to see each other much during the rest of the year," Cleveland said. "But Jeff Guernsey is one of my big local and ultimate musical influences. We don't get to play together that often because he stays busy as a teacher in Indiana and I'm busy on the road all the time. So actually this is really great for us. This gives us an excuse to play together once a year, at least."
Cleveland, a blind player who has performed extensively with such contemporary bluegrass greats as Rhonda Vincent and Dale Ann Bradley, was born in Henryville, Ind., the same small town Guernsey called home.
After being introduced to bluegrass festivals by his grandparents, Cleveland readily took to the fiddle, using initial training in the Suzuki Method to debut at the Grand Ole Opry as a guest of Alison Krauss before he turned 14. Performances with all-stars like Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, J.D. Crowe and others ensued, but at the core of his training were lessons in Indiana from Guernsey.
"For as long as I can remember, Jeff Guernsey was one of the people you just heard about," Cleveland said. "Of course, you hear about all the legends and all the guys out there on the road. But you also find out who the local musicians are that are really good. Everybody kept telling me, 'Jeff Guernsey, Jeff Guernsey.'
"Jeff really didn't want to start me off cold as a beginner. He didn't feel comfortable with that. But once I got to where I could play a little bit, I started taking lessons from him. Even though it's not a teacher-student thing anymore, I'm always learning from the guy. His knowledge of all different types of music is endless."
Guernsey's stylistic dexterity gets plenty of room to roam during his duo concerts with Cleveland. That means straying into areas of blues and swing, but still using bluegrass as a musical vehicle to encourage those sounds.
Such a premise is also beautifully employed by Cleveland on his newest album with Flamekeeper, 2014's On Down the Line — specifically, during a solo fiddle reading of Jack O' Diamonds that is full of faithful, rustic lyricism and a few improvisational liberties.
"The old-time version of it should be pretty close to what you hear at the very beginning of the tune," he said. "The first time through I try to introduce the melody the best way that I can. The rest of it is just my take on different ideas that I had. There's a lot of blues in there and definitely bluegrass. It's a cool tune, but I think it's good for a musician to have their own voice to interpret a tune the way they feel it.
"Bluegrass is a lot like jazz. It's based a lot on improvisation. So however you're feeling and however you play it today may vary quite a bit from the way you played it yesterday. With classical music, everything is structured. It's written out on paper and you don't deviate one bit.
"Some of the old time players may have heard my version of Jack O'Diamonds. Well, they're probably after me by now."