The National Endowment for the Arts is releasing a film celebrating its 2022 National Heritage Fellows and the bluegrass fiddler Michael Clevelandfrom Charlestown, Indiana, is among the featured artists.
Cleveland was one of 10 creatives to receive the award this yearwhich comes with a prize pool of $25,000.
The film, entitled Roots of American Culture: A Cross-Country Visit with Living Treasures of the Folk and Traditional Arts, will be broadcast on the NEA’s website Thursday at 8 p.m. EST.
The NEA Award has existed since 1982. It is considered one of the highest awards in folk and traditional art.
Cleveland feels in good company, as bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe and Jerry Douglas count among its former colleagues.
“Bluegrass music is my life,” Cleveland told WFPL News. “It’s something I love. It’s something I do every day. For anyone who would consider giving me an award that so many of my heroes have won, I am just grateful and very honored.”
Cleveland said he’s listened to bluegrass music since birth. His grandparents would take him to shows every Saturday night.
“People have said to me, ‘I remember seeing you in a stroller when you were about six months old and keeping the perfect time,'” he said.
He became particularly fascinated with the violin at the age of 4 after hearing someone play “Orange Blossom Special”.
“I remember being fascinated by all the sounds the violin could make,” Cleveland said. “I just knew I had to learn to play this song and I was obsessed, you could say.”
The musician enrolled at the Kentucky School of the Blind, where he learned the Suzuki violin method.
Cleveland said he eventually started taking his instrument to local bluegrass shows.
“There are a lot of good players in this field, a lot of good musicians that I’ve had the opportunity to be with and learn from and who have been very patient with a little kid scratching the violin,” he said.
He knew he wanted to devote his life to music after meeting country, bluegrass and folk artists who were also visually impaired such as Doctor Watson and Ronnie Milsap.
“I think that’s when it clicked for me that these guys are visually impaired and they’re doing it outside.”
In 2006, Cleveland formed his band, Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeeper. Among other things, he has been inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame, won a Grammy and was named an NEA Heritage Fellow in 2022.
“My dad always said to me, ‘You gotta have fun, whatever you’re doing, you gotta have fun doing it.’ … So my main philosophy is, and it’s not just music, it’s everything, if you have fun and you believe in what you’re doing, then you’re doing it right,” Cleveland said.