The Road Less Traveled

Upwardly mobile (from left): Caleb Roberts, Ben O'Connor, Jean Balhorn, Mark Leslie and Bradford Folk of Open Road.

Bradford Lee Folk, guitarist and lead vocalist of local bluegrass group Open Road, has just finished another shift at a dairy farm outside of Fort Collins, where he does the kind of hard work few Coloradans are willing to brave anymore. Now he's settling in for a different sort of travail. "I've never done an interview before," Folk says. "But I thought about this a lot today while I was out there working. I thought, 'What am I going to say to this gentleman?' Well, I came up with a couple of things I'd like to run over real fast, if that's okay with you."

A moment later, the exceedingly polite rookie interviewee unleashes a series of bluegrass-related points that are as impassioned as his singing voice. "I just want to say a couple words to the people out there," he says, sounding like some homespun artist broadcasting from the Grand Ol' Opry, "about bluegrass music and how important it is for us to maintain the traditions. I'm noticing a trend in Colorado, and in the nation, in bluegrass music. To kind of alter it in a way. And I equate it with what Nashville's been doing to country music. People are altering it so as to make it appeal to more people so they'll come in the door and have a good time and so forth. But bluegrass music is not cool, it's never been cool or something that the people like."

Folk's sentiments ring loudly in a region populated by players who try to make bluegrass into something that is cool. Bands that reach for updated forms of bluegrass sound too little like the real thing and come off more as an excuse for extended, grass-addled jamming. Meanwhile, those groups that go the traditional route typically trade the urgent emotion of their ancestors for a timid approach that misses the point entirely. But this Fort Collins five-piece (which also includes Jean Balhorn on fiddle, Mark Leslie on five-string banjo, Caleb Roberts on mandolin and Ben O'Connor on standup bass) has come up with a way to beat the dilemma.

The band's secret? Playing vintage bluegrass not as some polite re-creation or excuse for noodling, but as it's meant to be played: with urgency, immediacy and a face-first blast of guts and emotion. A listen to the band's new self-titled debut is a jarring experience that finds the band's heart beating on the outside, as obvious as the twang in Bill Monroe's tenor. Considering the band's local origin, youth and the fact that they've been together all of eighteen months, the group is also a thrilling discovery. Even if their sound is a bit too antique for Rocky Mountain hillbilly wannabes.

"The old style of bluegrass music isn't real palatable for the general public," adds Folk. "So what's happening with these bands in Boulder and Colorado, they bring up the bluegrass instruments and they'll play one or two bluegrass numbers. Because it's cool and they want to say that they're rooted in bluegrass -- it's 'bluegrass rock' or 'bluegrass funk.' But it's not bluegrass -- it doesn't start there. And I generally don't like to talk bad about other people's music," he notes, "but these bands will play a Bill Monroe song for three minutes and then jump into a Bob Marley song for twenty minutes." As a result, Folk says, listeners are getting a corrupted picture of what bluegrass is truly about. "What these bands do takes away from people who have spent a lifetime perfecting this music, people like Jimmy Martin and Ralph Stanley. It just kills me."

One listen to Open Road's debut reveals a band that has perfected the sounds of the past. The disc's first mule kick comes from Folk, who possesses one of the finest country voices you'll ever hear. It's a God-blessed, high-pitched voice, almost feminine in its tone and tenderness, but matched with a masculine punch and authentic color. Folk sings like a lost bluegrass legend, unearthed intact from some Kentucky coal mine in a time capsule.

Folk's vocals are the perfect match for the antique playing of his mates, a group equally adept at playing full-throttle foot-stompers or deliberate, breath-taking weepers. Caleb Roberts, an original member of Slim Cessna's Auto Club, delivers nimble mandolin parts and sports a grown-up voice that nicely counterparts Folk's. Jean Balhorn's rustic fiddle playing slips and slides in and out of the band's seemingly simple but sophisticated arrangements; her work never gets cutesy or too busy. Fleshing out the group's stone-cold sound are the perfect five-string banjo art of Mark Leslie and the stately bass playing of Ben O'Connor. Best of all, the bandmembers are devout team players who slip in for tasty solos and then slip quietly back out, leaving space between the parts of each well-chosen song, including a few originals from Folk and Roberts.  

"We try to play the music we like, as it sounds," Roberts says. "And we don't like to just copy the songs of groups like the Stanley brothers. We try and bring out the sound of those records and put them on a song we write or some other song. Ralph Stanley, he did this one lick, they call it a 'choke' lick. It sounds like a crow calling: 'Caw-caw-caw.' It makes me wanna holler when I hear it! Those are the things that get us excited. We like to put them in our songs."

The record was produced by Sally Van Meter, a longtime fixture on the local and national roots-music scene. The CD was the last project recorded at the late Charles Sawtelle's Rancho Deville Studio. Van Meter asked to produce the disc after hearing a demo from Balhorn. "The thing that knocked me out," she says, "was this incredible soul factor. It's something that's missing a lot in music today, especially bluegrass music." Another thing that bowled her over was Folk. "He's the real thing," Van Meter says. "He's not trying to sound like that, he just does sound like that. There's no BS. Once Brad opened that Foghorn Leghorn voice of his, I was knocked out." The band's collective playing had a similar impact on her. "Everything this band does is totally from the heart and there's no pretense to be overly polished. They play with so much soul, and just enough imperfection to make it real."

Nowadays, Roberts says, "Everybody's looking to play their instruments better than the next guy. But when I'm playing mandolin, I'm not thinking about making a note last as long as I can or as clean as I can. I'm thinking of putting the drive into the song, with the rhythm." (The band performs live around one lone microphone, an approach that adds to their "trad-&-true" sound.) Momentum, Folk says, is of the utmost importance in real bluegrass. "It's got to have drive, first and foremost," he says. "It has to have heart, too, and you have to be able to play a slow song. And you have to have tone, and be able to say more with less. If you can move somebody with three-and-a-half minutes, you've done yourself a real big deal." Subject matter is also important, for the player and the fan, he says. The biggest benefit of bluegrass to its true believers, Folk notes, is that it makes one "comfortable with the low points of your life. No matter where you are, no matter who died, no matter what you stepped on, you have a friend in bluegrass."

Of course, that friendship comes in handy for Folk when he sees all that pseudo-grass growing around him here in Colorado. "What Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident are doing is pop music," he says. "They're taking these bluegrass instruments up there and saying, 'Look at me, I can play this thing fast and wicked.' But they're missing so much, they're just shortcutting the whole thing. If a band's gonna say that bluegrass is any part of their music, I just think they ought to go home and learn how to play it. They ought to do their homework. But this generation of people, for some reason they don't want to do the homework."

Folk and his mates are certainly doing theirs, and area listeners appreciate that fact. The band is steadily selling copies of its disc, an offering that belongs in the inventory of any soul who savors meaty music and out-of-the-mainstream country music. Meanwhile, Folk and his pals will be doing their part to preserve the musical elements they hold dear -- even if it means ruffling the tie-dyed garb of some bluegrass revisionists.

"I don't give a rat's ass about that. I'm not here to make friends," he says. "And I'm sorry if I'm preaching about it. It's an important issue, and I don't want these men who came before us to be disrespected.

"That's my personal plight with this band," he adds. "I just want to be a statement. I don't judge a piece of music by how many people are in the audience or how many people are dancing or doing drugs or however they're having fun. I just want to try my hardest to learn how to play this music right until the day I die. Because it's who I am, it's my lifestyle. I go to the farm every day. I work hard and move cattle all day and work in the sun. And I think bluegrass all day. And whenever I'm not working, I'm playing the music I love. That's all I think about."

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