The Great Lakes Folk Festival takes over the streets of East Lansing this weekend, offering three days of live music, jam sessions, cultural activities, art vendors, food and more. City Pulse takes a look at this year’s offerings, including an interview with award-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland.

Great Lakes Folk Festival

6-10:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12;
noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13;
noon-6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14
Downtown East Lansing
(517) 432-4533,

Born into bluegrass

Michael Cleveland reflects on three decades of fiddling

Fiddler Michael Cleveland traces his 30-year bluegrass career back to a single tune.

“I heard a fiddler play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ when I was 4,” he said. “I knew from that point on what I wanted to do.”

Cleveland, ten-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s fiddler of the year award, performs at the Great Lakes Folk Festival Saturday and Sunday.

At 35, Cleveland seems too young to be such a veteran fiddler, but he got an early start. His grandparents started taking him to bluegrass shows when he was 6 months old.

“I don’t remember it, of course, but everybody tells me they used to see me there in a stroller,” he said.

While there were plenty of bluegrass musicians in southern Indiana where Cleveland grew up, no one was sure how to start with a student that young. Instead, Cleveland’s parents enrolled him in a Suzuki violin program at his school. His teacher, concerned that the young student might pick up bad habits from playing folk music, tried to discourage him from studying bluegrass.

Courtesy Photo

“I did classical violin during the week and bluegrass on the weekends,” he said. “I had to keep it on the down low.”

Nonetheless, Cleveland is thankful for the time he spent studying classical music.

“I don’t think I’d be near where I am today without that classical training,” he said. “It trained my ear. It taught me to really listen and pick up on things.”

In 1993, at 13, Cleveland made his Grand Ole Opry debut as a guest of Alison Krauss. Since then, he has appeared on stages with artists like Bill Monroe, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart.

“I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of my heroes,” he said. “That’s an education in itself.”

Of all of his performing and touring experiences, he counts an 18-month stint with singer/multi-instrumentalist Rhonda Vincent in the early 2000s as particularly helpful.

“I learned about the business side of music and how to put on a good show,” he said. “Rhonda was great at that. It didn’t matter what the set list said. If the audience didn’t seem into it, there would be a fast banjo tune or fast fiddle tune, and it would turn things around. Stuff like that is essential if you’re going to do this.”

Cleveland formed his own band, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, in 2006. The band’s latest album, 2014’s “On Down the Line,” is a mix of traditional bluegrass staples and contemporary tunes. The album opens with a bluegrass take on Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” and ends with a blistering version of “Orange Blossom Special.”

Even after three decades of playing bluegrass, Cleveland still finds ways to keep things fresh. While his own music sticks pretty close to tradition, he also finds time for projects that push him in new directions.

“I’m known as a traditional bluegrass guy, but I’ve done some things that are outside of the box,” he said.

One of those projects was an album with clarinetist/mandolinist Andy Statman. “Superstring Theory,” released in 2013, is a genre-spanning disc that pulls from jazz, Klezmer, funk and blues traditions. The album also features Tim O’Brien, a virtuoso who plays a variety of string instruments, including guitar, banjo and bouzouki.

“That was a real learning experience,” he said. “It was a lot different than anything you do in bluegrass.”

While jazz music has a vocabulary and style that is distinct from bluegrass, Cleveland sees a lot of overlap between the two American genres.

“Bluegrass is a ‘feel’ music; it’s based on improv. That’s what bluegrass and jazz have in common,” he said. “A lot of it is off the cuff. Even though you write something out and can learn how to play it note for note, the time’s going to come when you have to start coming up with things on your own.”

Part of what keeps bluegrass fresh for Cleveland is its sense of inclusivity. Bluegrass music is built on a culture of jam sessions and family gatherings, which creates opportunities for meeting new people and connecting with other artists.

“When you go to a bluegrass festival, you’re liable to see a hundred parking lot jam sessions,” he said. “And the real cool thing is that some of your bluegrass heroes might be in those jams. I don’t think you can say that about any other type of music.”

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper plays three sets this weekend. Cleveland hopes that attendees will see the band more than once.

“We’ll vary it quite a bit,” he said. “We have enough material — you’re going to get a different show every time.”

One tune that will certainly be on the set list is Cleveland’s original favorite, “Orange Blossom Special.” And who knows — maybe the next great bluegrass fiddler will be listening from his or her stroller.

More for the Folks

Great Lakes Folk Festival expands interactive offerings

It’s easy to spot the seasoned festival-goers at East Lansing’s Great Lakes Folk Festival. Comfortable sandals, a floppy hat, a tote bag (probably from NPR, if we’re being honest) stocked with sunscreen and maybe a few snacks — it’s the wardrobe of someone who is ready for a full weekend of folk music. But this year, attendees may want to add something to their festival checklist: their instrument.

The festival has expanded its make-your-own-music offerings from a few scattered jam sessions to a full-blown, two-day Jam Tent.

“There has been a growing demand from people who go to the festival for chances to try their hand at things,” said Marsha MacDowell, the festival’s founding director. “The festival has an orientation to be educational.”

Jam Tent sessions include chances to learn about Irish, Cajun and bluegrass music, as well as a harmonica jam for kids and even a session on “documenting folklife in your backyard.”

But the interaction doesn’t end there. The weekend’s festivities offer plenty of opportunities for attendees to get in on the action. Ten Pound Fiddle booker Sally Potter leads the festival’s community sing Saturday, and Ben Hassenger, mid-Michigan’s self-proclaimed “ambassador of the ukulele,” kicks off the festival with a community ukulele strum Friday.

Multi-instrumentalist Andy Wilson (left), seen here performing with brother Joe Wilson, will lead a harmonica jam for children Sunday at the Great Lakes Folk Festival.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

“There’s a growing enthusiasm for the ukulele,” MacDowell said. “Ben has done a wonderful job cultivating interest in this wonderful little instrument.”

Even the festival’s dance tent, already one of the most participatory parts of the festival, is doing more to get people involved. Several sessions at the dance tent include short dance instructions, giving novices a chance to learn some basic steps before wandering out onto the dance floor.

“We realized that not everybody knows how to polka or how to dance to salsa,” MacDowell said. “We’re dedicated to incorporating education into the dance opportunities. It only takes 10 minutes, and people feel much more confident.”

The festival also includes a “Kidlore” area with activities designed for children. The educational focus spills over into the children's area, with projects designed to complement the festival’s cultural component.

“We really try to have activities for youth that change each year and tie into other things in the festival,” MacDowell said.

This year’s projects, inspired by the festival’s Michigan Heritage Awards and Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, include book art, boat building and wood-fired pottery.

The festival’s Campus and Community Stage pulls from across Grand River Avenue, highlighting cultural programs at Michigan State University. Campus groups will presents sessions on activism through quilting, fighting human trafficking with music and encouraging young playwrights.

“It’s great to see the things that are being done by MSU students and faculty to use culture for outreach,” MacDowell said.

The MSU Museum, which coordinates the festival, will complement the quilting presentation with quilts from its collection.

“It’s a way of using traditional art for advocacy,” MacDowell said. “We have a number of quilts that deal with human rights and civil rights. They’re being used on campus to foster dialogue on topics like racism and xenophobia — topics that are still relevant today.”