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Open Road hits the road with changes

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2004

A lot has changed for Colorado-based bluegrass band Open Road since its Rounder Records 2002 debut, "Cold Wind."

For starters, the response was enthusiastic from critics and public alike to the debut, setting the stage for their new disc "...in the life."

And secondly, the quintet experienced a major shake up - three new members surfaced since the debut.

Group co-founder and mandolinist Caleb Roberts says in a late May interview from his home in Lyons, Col. that the timing was right for a sophomore effort.

"We wanted to have another recording because the time had certainly come since the last one," he says.

The intent of "...in the life" was to give the public a chance to hear the new line-up along with a sampling of its current material.

"That gets into the material that we chose (and) that we didn't choose," says Roberts of the goals in making the new album. "That was pretty hard because we went through a process of picking a couple of dozen songs that we might record (and then) paring it down into this bunch that worked well together."

The 13-song album includes songs from Charlie and Ira Louvin ("Bald Knob Arkansas"), Howard Harlan's well-known country song "Pick Me Up," George Jones' "One is a Lonely Number," several traditional songs, an instrumental penned by new band member Keith Reed ("Cheyenne Mountain Breakdown") and three from lead singer and Open Road co-founder Bradford Lee Folk.

"It wasn't terribly hard although we put a fair amount of effort into it over time. We sent a demo (to Rounder head Ken Irwin) of what we thought the album might be about a year ago. We weren't ready to record yet. We were planning on it. We talked about the material and some other things. At some point, last year, Memorial Day weekend, we were up in Maine, and Ken came up and showed Brad and I some songs. We thought we might pick one or two more."

Later while playing at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York, Folk and Roberts went to Irwin's home to go over records for possible songs to include. "We spent almost a whole day going over material, finding something that might fit in there. Two of them we recorded and were integrated into our show over time."

Roberts, 34, was not so sure about including "Pick Me Up," a big hit for Charlie Walker in 1958.

"I thought that maybe 'Pick Me Up' was a bit too common, but I think sometimes we suffer from playing stuff that nobody ever recognizes."

"Brad loves honky tonk music more than I do, and I enjoy it. He's way into it. He has various other efforts he participates in occasionally. He's got his friends who bring over electric guitar and play it in his barn. He got a country music jam going on at his house occasionally."

"He was playing around with a lot of types of country music actually. All of those different sounds fit in real well with us. What feels natural for Brad to sing is probably going to feel natural for Open Road."

Jones' "One is a Lonely Number" is a song Open Road has played "for a long time now. I guess it's a country song. It's as feel much bluegrass to me as most songs."

"To tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever heard George Jones sing it."

And that also can be a positive. A lack of knowledge helps to "just make it our own if we can and not get too caught up in how George did it."

"To me, it sounds like bluegrass," Roberts says. "I'm sure a lot of people would say there's a lot of country music (in our sound)."

And with good reason. Roberts says he was familiar with a version of the song from bluegrass great Del McCoury on an old album with his brother, Jerry.

Roberts cites the presence of producer Sally Van Meter for the second straight album as a big plus. "It was great to have her input and her creative talents at work." Roberts says she was particularly helpful in song arrangements.

Open Road started about six years ago with Folk and Roberts at the helm. Roberts moved from his native South Carolina after dropping out of the University of South Carolina. "I didn't have a lot holding me there in Columbia. My family had all moved to different places. I just kind of thought I'd like to go somewhere else and see the rest of the country."

Going back to school at the University of Colorado and getting an electrical engineering degree (he worked for eight years in digital audio), Roberts also grew more involved in the bluegrass scene through jam sessions.

But at one point, he strayed far from bluegrass thanks to having founded Slim Cessna's Auto Club, an alt.-country band that plays much harder music than Open Road ever has or will.

Roberts chalks up his time with Slim as "an exposure to creating a band. It wasn't the music I was most interested in."

Folk, born in Louisiana and raised in Missouri, was based in Fort Collins, Col., which had an active bluegrass scene. So much so that Roberts went there regularly for jam sessions, where he and Folk hooked up.

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