My Flamekeeper Experience

I’m sure all of us that are musicians dream of getting to play on stage with our heroes. This was certainly the case with me. Even before I was able to play any sort of instrument, I would often daydream of being on stage with some of mine such as Doyle Lawson, Ralph Stanley and countless others. That dream came true for me unexpectedly on Friday May 3, 2019. Before I tell you about that, let me give you some background details.

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, part of my early exposure to Bluegrass music was through different VHS tapes that my Dad and my Grandpa each had. A few of those tapes were shows recorded off of The Nashville Network in the early 1990s by my Dad. As a toddler, moving and speaking were both extremely difficult which made all the normal childhood activities complicated for me. My favorite pass time back then was to lay on the floor while one of these recorded tapes played and strum on a toy guitar that would be lying right beside me. One of these tapes contained an edited version of the Robert Mugge documentary, Gather at the River, which was centered around the 1993 IBMA Awards Show and Convention. One of my favorite parts of the documentary featured the Bluegrass Youth All Stars, an all kid band that was put together by Pete Wernick. One of the kids in that band was a 12 year old fiddle player by the name of Michael Cleveland. I would watch him on that tape many times in the first few years of my existence.

Many years later at the age of 15, I had gotten a beginner model mandolin out of a pawn shop and was learning how to play. Up until that point in my life most of the bands I had been listening to were Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Dailey & Vincent and a few of the first generation artists, but I hadn’t been paying as much attention to the newer bands in Bluegrass. As I started learning more about the contemporary groups, I kept coming across Michael and his band Flamekeeper. Not only did he blow me away with his musicianship, but I began feeling more inspired as I learned more about his story. Although he is blind and also deaf in one ear, I found that we share the commonality of having a physical disability. As time went on, I bought every album of his I could and saw him play live whenever he and his band came to town. One particular memory that sticks out to me is at the Bloomin’ Bluegrass Festival, where I was sitting in my wheelchair waiting for Michael to start his set. As his banjo player at the time, Glenn Gibson was leading him up to his microphone an older lady turned to me and said “It sure is nice of them to let that special boy up there with ’em ain’t it!” When Michael ripped into “Old Brown County Barn” I looked over and saw this woman’s jaw dropped. From seeing that I decided that someday I wanted to elicit that same type of reaction whenever I would get on stage and play. I honestly don’t know if I’ve actually acheived that, but it’s something I still aim for every time I play a show.

Fast forward to Wednesday May 1, 2019. I was getting ready to head out the door to meet with my mens Bible study group when I happened to glance at my phone and noticed I had missed a call. I didn’t recognize the number, but I saw that this caller had left a message so I listened to it. It was Terry Williams, a guitar player and singer that my Dad and I had jammed with on several occasions. As I listened I heard him say that he and I had been invited to perform on stage with Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper at the Bluegrass Heritage Festival in Farmers Branch, TX that Friday night. I was so shocked I didn’t even finish listening to the message! Once I had collected myself, I called Terry back to get the full details.

The way this all happened is an interesting story in itself. About 5 years ago, Michael had done a contest on Facebook where whoever won would get to pick a show the band would be playing and would have the opportunity to get on stage and perform a song with the band. Terry won the contest, but they were not booked to play in Texas, so Terry was unable to perform with them. When he saw they were scheduled to play the Bluegrass Heritage Festival, Terry got in touch with Michael and asked if that opportunity was still open. When he confirmed it was, Terry told him about me and asked if it would be possible for me to go up and play with them instead. Michael agreed to having me play with them, but added that since Terry had been the winner he also wanted him on stage with the band.

I’m not sure exactly how to describe all the emotions that I was feeling at that moment, but it was overwhelming to say the least. As soon as I got off the phone with Terry, I immediately called my Dad to give him the news. He was just as surprised as I was and we both couldn’t wait for the night to get there.

In Terry and I’s phone call, we discussed potential songs that he had mentioned to Michael about us playing with them. One was “Dark Hollow” and the other was “When You Were Mine,” a song that Michael and the band had recorded on their debut album titled Leavin’ Town. We didn’t know which song we would end up performing, so the next day I worked intensely on my mandolin solos to make sure I was ready for whatever Michael wanted to do.

Friday night arrived. To say I was nervous would be a huge understatement. Like I mentioned in the beginning, it was my dream to one day perform on stage with a hero of mine, but I never would’ve imagined it would actually come to fruition. Terry and I met up and talked a little beforehand. We then went backstage to the green room to meet with Michael and the band. It was there we learned he had decided on playing “Dark Hollow.” I should add we hardly had any time to rehearse. We did discuss what key it would be in and who would be singing the individual harmony parts. Terry would be singing lead, Michael’s guitar player, Josh Richards would be singing tenor and I would be singing baritone. Shortly after singing through the chorus of the song a couple of times, Michael asks “Now Braeden, are you gonna kick this off?” I responded “sure,” but truthfully I hadn’t prepared myself for this. I had worked out a solo or two, but certainly not an intro. Luckily it would be awhile before Terry and I would get called on stage to perform with the band. While Michael and the guys headed out to kick off their set, I stayed in the green room and worked out an intro until I was fully satisfied.

The moment finally came when Terry and I walked out on stage and Michael introduced us. Looking back even just a few weeks later, I don’t remember much of what actually happened. It was all a blur to me. I think I was so nervous it was hard for everything to really sink in, I just remember walking out there, getting situated on my stool, playing the song and then walking off. That’s why I’m extremely grateful for the footage that Terry was able to capture on his camera as well as the video my Mom filmed (which you can see a combo of in the video at the top of the page). I ended up playing that intro a lot better than I thought I would and I wound up playing a second solo that was unplanned and completely off the cuff.

Out of everything I’ve gotten to do, getting the chance to play on stage with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper is the event that I now consider the biggest highlight of my musical journey to date. I’d like to especially thank Michael and Terry both for making a young guy’s dream a reality!

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