Film celebrating NEA Heritage Fellows features Southern Indiana fiddle player Michael Cleveland
The National Endowment for the Arts is releasing a film that celebrates its 2022 National Heritage Fellows, and bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland, of Charlestown, Indiana, is among the featured artists.
Cleveland wasone of 10 creatives to receive the distinction this year, which comes with a $25,000 cash prize.
The film, called “Roots of American Culture: A Cross-Country Visit with Living Treasures of the Folk and Traditional Arts,” will stream on the NEA’s website Thursday at 8 p.m. EST.
The NEA award has been around since 1982. It’s considered one of the highest honors in the folk and traditional arts.
Cleveland feels he’s in good company, as past fellows include bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe and Jerry Douglas.
“Bluegrass music is my life,” Cleveland told WFPL News. “It's something I love. It's something that I do every day. For anybody to consider giving me an award like this, that so many of my heroes have won, I'm just thankful and very honored.”
Cleveland said he’s been listening to bluegrass music since his birth. His grandparents would take him to shows every Saturday night.
“People have told me, ‘I remember seeing you in a stroller when you were about six months old, keeping perfect time,’” he said.
He became fascinated with the fiddle specifically at 4, after hearing someone play “Orange Blossom Special.”
“I remember being captivated by all the sounds that the fiddle could make,” Cleveland said. “I just knew I had to learn to play that song, and I became obsessed, I guess you could say.”
The musician enrolled at the Kentucky School of the Blind, where he learned the Suzuki method of violin.
Cleveland said, eventually, he started bringing his instrument to local bluegrass shows.
“There's a lot of good players in this area, a lot of good musicians that I had the opportunity to be around and learn from and who were very patient with a little kid scratching around on the fiddle,” he said.
“I think that's when it clicked for me that, hey, you know, these guys are visually impaired, and they're out doing it.”
In 2006, Cleveland formed his band, Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeeper. He’s gone on to be inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame, win a Grammy and be named a 2022 NEA Heritage Fellow, among other accolades.
“My dad always said to me, ‘You need to have fun, whatever you do, you need to have fun doing it.' … So my main philosophy is, and this is not just music but anything, if you’re having fun and you believe in what you’re doing, then you’re doing it right,” Cleveland said.