There’s music in them thar hills, people, but it ain’t the music you might expect from these particular hills. Open Road hails from the Front Range in Colorado, a far piece from the rolling Appalachians that gestated arguably the most American of all musical genres. But as dissimilar as the jutting blades of the Rocky Mountain foothills are to the rounded mounds down south, Open Road is living proof that the high lonesome sound resides just as easily in the high country as it does in the homeland of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs.
Sure, Colorado has long been a hotbed of progressive bluegrass along the lines of Tony Furtado, Leftover Salmon, and Tim and Mollie O’Brien. But perhaps because of their roots—band members hail from Missouri, South Carolina, and Iowa as well as Colorado—Open Road hews as close to the core of traditional bluegrass as the tuning pegs of Monroe’s mandolin. Even a cursory listen to Cold Wind, the band’s debut album on the Rounder label, shows that old-fashioned hasn’t sounded this good in quite some time.
Cold Wind’s title track, an ode to the raw solitude found by lead singer, songwriter and guitar player Bradford Lee Folk at his mountain cabin outside of Fort Collins, is a perfect example of Open Road’s symbiosis of altitude and authenticity. Fueled by Jim Runnel’s rolling banjo groove and Caleb Roberts’ punching mandolin licks, the tune is a stark and gorgeous backdrop for Folk’s high tenor as he wails a blues that will strike an icy chord with anyone who has felt the unforgiving Hellgate gusts blow through clothing layers as if they were tissue paper: “It’s co-o-o-old wind, brings a lonesome chill.”
The rest of the record is a showcase of genuine bluegrass chops, from the elegiac beauty of Folk’s “Hard Times” to the country-tinged “Petals in my Pocket” to the hushed elegance of the Hank Williams gospel standard “How Can You Refuse Him Now.” Thrown in for good measure are a couple of original instrumental stomps, the mandolin ripper “South Saluda Ramble” and the banjo eruption “Kanesville,” along with several lovingly rendered covers of songs by more obscure bluegrass artists like Mac Martin, Vern Williams and the Blankenship Brothers.
“It’s what Brad and I really love the most,” Roberts says of his passion for the lesser-known covers, shared by Open Road co-founder Folk. “There’s all these unsung heroes of bluegrass music, people who were known and loved regionally but never nationally.”
Open Road’s reverence for honest bluegrass is no shtick, or if it is, it’s a damn convincing one. Roberts’ voice oozes respect when he speaks of his bluegrass heroes, and he recounts his early influences as if they were the trappings of a prince’s life.
“My daddy was a big fan of bluegrass music,” says the North Carolinian, “so I can’t remember ever not hearing it. I was raised in an old-fashioned way, and playing the music gives me a connection to where I came from.”
That old-time vibe permeates the group’s stage presence as well. They play to a single, central mic, leaning in (or out) of the center as they trade vocal leads and harmonies. They’re dressed to the nines as well, with formal Western suits topped by the cowboy hats that gave them their name—the “Open Road” model is an understated Stetson, small-brimmed and short-crowned, as genuine and unassuming as the band itself.
“We’re really not trying to do a cheesy, Bill Monroe clone look,” says Roberts. “It has its roots in the days when bluegrass musicians wore suits on stage, when the audience expected entertainers to dress nicer than they do. We do it to show respect for the audience in that way.”
It’s a bit bewildering, in this age of irony and postmodernism, to come upon an entity as dynamic and old-fashioned as Open Road. But the sweet and clear tones of these bluegrass boys are enough to make you understand what your grandpa was talking about when he pined for the good ol’ days.