Mike Stevens is a harmonica virtuoso who has been involved in a variety of excellent musical projects, including prolific releases under his own name. Although other harmonica players have played the Grand Old Opry, Stevens is about the most far-out player to ever grace that stage. He was pretty seriously playing the harmonica by age 16, but didn't really get into bluegrass until the early '80s when he played with the band Blackwell Sideroad. It would turn out to be the genre where this Canadian player would make his reputation, including the sought-after trophy of work and acceptance in the country music headquarters south of the border. He worked with groups such as Whitewater Bluegrass and Lost & Found, sometimes fighting the resentment of bluegrass purists who trust nothing that doesn't have strings attached to it.
When he began working with legendary Grand Ole Opry members Jim & Jesse, the critical tide turned. Stevens logged more than 300 Opry performances backing up these wonderful McReynolds boys, during a time when he fine-tuned his playing abilities. Whatever advantages the harmonica may have in portability as opposed to, say, an electric bass outfit, is lost in respectability since the instrument is rarely seen as an essential in a group. Unless, of course, the individual blowing the harp develops virtuoso chops, in which case any kind of band will put the harp out front. This is the kind of playing ability Stevens developed, with the eventual result that he has turned his harmonica into something of a skeleton key, opening the doors to as many genres as there are rooms in the haunted Winchester mansion. Opry übermensch Roy Acuff was such a fan of the harmonica player that his regular presence in the wings for not other purpose other than watching Stevens has been noted as unusual. The harmonica player also performed on the Nashville-based music network TNN and has performed live throughout his native Canada, the United States, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Japan. He has won awards as the Canadian Entertainer of the Year at the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards for five consecutive years. He only stopped winning after that because he was officially retired in this category in order to give someone else a chance. Which is fine with Stevens, who is an enthusiastic supporter of his instrument and up-and-coming players as well. His book, Bluegrass Harmonica, published in 2000 by Hal Leonard, is one of the best publications about how to blow up a storm on this little instrument since Tony Glover came up with his superb Blues Harmonica. His Pinecastle Blowin' Up a Storm was one of the best-selling bluegrass recordings in 1992. In 1994, he was made a "Kentucky Colonel," the highest honor given by the State of Kentucky for his accomplishments in bluegrass.
1998 is seen as a year of enormous development for Stevens. He formed a new band, called the Mike Stevens Project, and with the recording Normally Anomaly presented a soup of influences equal parts bluegrass, Delta blues, Balinese Gamelan, and strongly Arabic in rhythmic conception. The recording also featured solos in which Stevens utilized electronic processing equipment and samplers to create complex harems of harmonica lines. The diversity of his playing interests has of course led to a wide variety of playing contexts, the circles broadening like ripples from a stone tossed in the water. He continues to play bluegrass dates with Jim & Jesse, the Lewis Family, and the McLains among others. He performs solo harmonica concerts in which many of his different interests get playing time. He also works in a duo setting with innovative bluegrass-based Raymond McLain, and tours with the Mike Stevens Project group, highlighting the kind of rocking blues which have always been a comfortable place for the harmonica. Yet he shows no signs of standing still in that realm, and in 2000 released The World Is Only Air, a collection of original and traditional Canadian fiddle tunes played on the harmonica. There are very few musicians who have taken on this challenging repertoire on the harmonica for the simple reason that it constitutes an incredibly difficult technical feat. The rave reviews for this album indicate that Stevens was more than up to the task at hand. He also picks up a variety of random calls to provide harp sweetening to other artists' recordings or live dates, including a pretty regular presence in Nashville studios. In 2001, director Brian White completed Harmonica Crossing, a film portrait of Stevens. ~ Eugene Chadbourne