For Open Road, the latest in a string of top-notch bluegrass bands to come out of Colorado, the summer and fall of 2002 have seen not only their first East Coast tour, where they played to enthusiastic crowds at the major Labor Day festivals in New Jersey and Maine, but also the release of their first nationally distributed recording, "Cold Wind," on Boston-based Rounder Records.
For Bradford Lee Folk, the band's guitarist as well as main lead singer and songwriter, the trip East turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding experience. "We didn't know exactly how people were going to take us, but we found a lot of great traditional bluegrass music lovers there and a lot of really knowledgeable fans. I think that's one thing that really impressed me...their general knowledge of the music. We were pulling out songs that we thought were eclectic and kind of secretive, and sure enough, we'd look in the front row, and everybody would be singing along to them, so it was obvious they know a lot about music out there."
A native of Louisiana who was raised in Missouri, Folk gravitated to the active Rocky Mountain bluegrass scene that in the last two decades had produced Hot Rize and Front Range, both based in the Boulder area where the University of Colorado provided a large college audience.
Settling in Fort Collins, home of Colorado State, Folk found a similarly large college crowd, but one with a taste for the more traditional, hard-core bluegrass sound.
"It was a state agricultural college for years and years, and it used to be a cowboy town even as close to 10 or 15 years ago. You'd see a lot of cowboy hats, walking down the street. It's mountainous, and it's agricultural-based, and I think that all mixes for a good underlying heartbeat of country music."
It was also the home of another very successful band, the Bluegrass Patriots, and Folk credits that band's founder and banjo player Ken Seaman as being the key figure in the development of the local scene.
"I think he brought a lot of the traditional soul to Fort Collins and kind of started teaching people about what they were doing back in the rural environment in the East, and that kind of caught on. I think the Bluegrass Patriots had a big influence in our area for heroes and mentors in traditional bluegrass music."
After playing in a number of local bands, Folk met and teamed up with mandolin player Caleb Roberts to form Open Road. Poetic license aside, the name actually refers to the model of Stetsons they wear on stage.
In addition to Folk and Roberts, "Cold Wind" includes banjo player Jim Runnels, bassist Ben O'Connor and fiddler Dan Mitchell. (As of the recent tour, O'Connor and Mitchell have been replaced by Eric Thorin and Robert Britt, respectively.)
From the beginning, the emphasis has been on the classic, Monroe-style "high lonesome" sound, and Folk acknowledges the old masters were the inspiration.
"For our band in particular, we listen to a lot of Stanley Brothers, of course, and Monroe and Jimmy Martin and all those guys, and that's just kind of what stuck on us. You know, it kind of depends on who everybody's listening to, and who their heroes are, but for us, of course, we kind of look back to the forefathers of the music, and we learned our chops on our songs off of the records, so we really incorporate more of those elements in our traditional music as we can."In putting the elements into practice, Folk and his bandmates don't hesitate to do it in classic bluegrass fashion to the stratospheric keys of B and B flat, but Folk says that's simply part of what makes bluegrass different from country music of the more standard variety.
"If I were to sing a country song out of D natural, it wouldn't have the same resonance, it wouldn't have the same to-nality as it does up in those higher registers, and my voice just happens to sound like that in higher registers."
Folk laughs as he adds, "Now some people would really cringe at it and say that's hardly music, and other people would just die over it...(Bill) Monroe, a lot of people don't appreciate his music, or at least it takes a while for people's palates to acclimate to that particular kind of a high, lonesome sound, and of course, if you're playing bluegrass music, it works great. I'm not sure what other kind of music I'd do successfully, but I'm glad my voice is fitting for those registers."
Sitting in on one cut is fiddler Eddie Stubbs, a longtime member of the Johnson Mountain Boys, and it's an appropriate connection. When they debuted two decades ago, the JMBs devoted as much attention to bluegrass as a performance art as to the music itself. In an age when bluegrass stage dress ' had become decidedly casual, Stubbs and his colleagues were all Stetsons, suits, string ties and showmanship. Folk appreciates the comparison, and says it's all about professionalism.