Open Road – Their own kind of hat
“We’d like to leave you with this wonderful old Bill Monroe song,” says Caleb Roberts, mandolin player for Open Road, as the band finishes up a show at the Olde Town Pickin’ Parlor, a music store just outside of Denver. Roberts hits a few crisp notes on his 1923 Gibson F-5 and launches into a fine version of “It’s Mighty Dark To Travel”, which Monroe recorded in 1947.
More than 50 years later, Open Road is on a mission to prove that the high, lonesome sound can sound as fresh today as it did way back then. They don’t try to reinvent the wheel by playing banjo-laden reggae songs or noodling ad nauseam. Open Road prefers the genuine article.
“I saw Bill Monroe, and that was it for me,” says 28-year-old lead singer and guitarist Bradford Lee Folk, who possesses a soulful bluegrass voice (think Carter Stanley or Del McCoury). “It was so cool. I’ll never forget it. And since then, I’ve been trying my hardest to learn how to do that.”
Folk, who works on a cattle ranch, met Roberts, a 30-year-old electrical engineer originally from Columbia, South Carolina, a few years ago at the Rockygrass Bluegrass Festival. Roberts, a founding member of the alt-country band Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, had always wanted to form a traditional bluegrass unit. In Folk, he found a kindred spirit.
“I think we both had the same kind of sound in mind,” says Folk, who grew up listening to bluegrass and country music in Missouri. They rounded up bass player Ben O’Connor, fiddler Jean Ballhorn, and banjoist Mark Leslie, and formed Open Road — named after a narrow-brimmed Stetson long favored by unpretentious country gentlemen. (Leslie has since been replaced by Jim Runnels.)
Noted dobroist Sally Van Meter produced the band’s self-titled debut album. “They’re not technically perfect, but they’ve got a lot of soul, and that was true with Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers,” Van Meter says. About half the songs on the disc are covers, including two by the Stanleys, but the standouts were penned by Folk — particularly “So Lonesome”, a classic bluegrass weeper, that spotlights his high tenor.
“We do this because it makes us feel good,” says Folk, who concedes there isn’t a huge market for the kind of music Open Road plays. “I don’t really think much about what’s going to sell or what’s going to make audiences come through the door, and maybe we should. But I’ve never been that way with music. I’ve never even thought about it that way.
“Luckily, I’ve never had to. If it’s not your bread and butter, then you’re at liberty to go out and do what you want to do. I don’t know how hungry I’d get before I’d start changing the style we have, but I’d have to get pretty lowdown to do something else.”