Music Reviews
Michael Cleveland

Michael Cleveland

Lovin’ of the Game

Compass

Listened on repeat for a month. Not tired of it. Gets better each time.

I could stop there, but that wouldn’t be fair to anyone.

I got a preview of what was coming on Lovin’ of the Game with the title track a few months ago and knew then what we were in for: a laser-cut but down-home piece of art that deserves to be heard through headphones from a rickety table at the Station Inn in Nashville, where I also got a little listen, not knowing this album was in the cooker. (Read the single review on Ink 19.)

The guest list for this party is enviable by any standard. The Travelin’ McCourys on Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner” kick off the vocal tracks after a bust-open-the-barn-door intro of “Thousand Dollar Holler,” where Cleveland takes his original and calls things to order.

Billy Strings and Jeff White deliver what is one of my favorites on “For Your Love,” trading off vocals and breaks with the wow factor turned up. There’s such an authenticity to this track. A half-laugh at the end of one of the verses has the flavor of a one-take recording. An intentional ratchet down of the dynamic three-quarters through the song gives the listener a minute to breathe, before the trio comes back full-on to wrap it up and wow us again.

Is there any tenor out there in country music better than Vince Gill? No. “I Wish I Knew Now What I Knew Then” is a classic showcase for this one, co-written with Charlie Craig. It also showcases Cleveland’s intuitive way with fiddle intros, wailing in with a mournful tone. Somebody regrets something. It’s as country as country gets.

We were promised Bela Fleck, and he shows up on “Contact” with Barry Bales and Cody Kilby. This is an uptempo showhorse of an instrumental. Imagine crowds of barefoot festival-goers off their low-back chairs, blissed in the moment of sunshine and substances. I think this track also deserves some time in the earbuds, so you can dissect each flawless break.

Another favorite is “Temperance Reel” by Cleveland, Luke Bulla, and Tim O’Brien, my personal dream trio. Their delivery of this classic Irish fiddle tune with lyrics by Guy Clark, Jon Randall, and Bulla is swoon-worthy. These folks are from another era. They were just born late enough that we can enjoy them in our lifetime.

More heavy hitters, the envy of all flat-pickers, Bryan Sutton, and dobro-master Jerry Douglas show up on “Empty Pocket Blues” and “Now She’s Gone.” Cleveland’s band Flamekeeper appears throughout both tracks, lending that laser-sharp support with a signature sound.

Another standout is “One Horse Town,” with Charlie Starr on vocals. This ballad is the perfect homage to a small-town woulda, coulda been a baseball star but, you know, life happens. The band hits it out of the park on this one. It stays in the heart.

Wrapping up with the title track, “Lovin’ of the Game” is the Pat and Victoria Garvey classic that’s been covered by Judy Collins, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, and Ray Wylie Hubbard in the past. I don’t think any of these holds up to Cleveland’s take on this. I heard it as if for the first time. I listened to it a lot. It gets better each time.

I don’t think you’ll get tired of it, either.

Michael Cleveland


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