"To have something that I've done recognized by enough people that it receives a nomination like this has me feeling very honored," he says of his nod for best bluegrass album
“It’s unbelievable,” Cleveland, 43, tells PEOPLE from his home on three acres in Charlestown, Indiana. “I mean, I never thought something like this would ever happen.”
Indeed, it has happened, as both find themselves nominated in a star-studded category alongside fellow artists such as Sam Bush, Mighty Poplar, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway.
“To have something that I've done recognized by enough people that it receives a nomination like this has me feeling very honored,” says Cleveland, whose 2023 release Lovin’ of the Game is up for best bluegrass album.
The renowned bluegrass artist and veteran fiddle virtuoso previously won the accolade in 2019 for his album, Tall Fiddler.
But still, it never gets old.
Certainly, it’s a crazy circumstance for a man who was born blind and mostly deaf, and who was only 4 years old when he realized he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I wanted to learn how to play bluegrass,” Cleveland remembers.
This proclamation didn’t go over too well, as it was made while Cleveland was a new student at the Kentucky School for the Blind’s classical program that sought to teach the ins and outs of the Suzuki violin.
“I didn't know much about the violin, but I knew a lot about the fiddle,” chuckles Cleveland, who now holds the title as the most awarded fiddler of all time. “I think the first thing I was obsessed with before I even thought about playing a fiddle was with the song ‘Rocky Top.” But then, I heard a fiddle player play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and after I heard that, I knew that I had to learn how to play that song.”
As Cleveland looks back now, he recognizes that his classical training at the Kentucky School for the Blind was so very important in his musical journey to becoming one of one of modern bluegrass’s most compelling musicians.
But it’s more important than that.
“When I play music, things get better,” Cleveland says quietly. “I always go to a better place when I play music, and I think that's what music should be about. You must feel it. Obviously, everybody wants to play perfectly and play as well as they can play and hit every note dead-on, but really, my favorite musicians are the ones that make you feel something.”
The importance of feeling the music in which he plays is especially important for Cleveland, who has endured so very much thus far in his life, including multiple surgeries, serious illnesses and the divorce of his parents.
“No matter what happens, there's always music to go to,” says Cleveland, who is now the most awarded International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Fiddle Player of the Year” with 12 wins to his name. “If I'm having a problem, music is what I dive into, and it helps. It doesn't fix everything, but it certainly helps.”
It's a message he shares with anyone who listens, and it’s a message that just might become an important part of Cleveland’s legacy.
But really, it’s always been about the music.
“Whenever you hear a kid trying to play one of your licks or songs or whatever, that's the best feeling in the world,” Cleveland exclaims. “If there's something that I've come up with that somebody thinks enough of to want to try and learn or steal, I like to say all the time, and it's the truth." He laughs. "I'm glad licks aren't copyrighted because, so I owe a ton of money to a lot of people.”
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