Twist on Tradition

Open Road adds enough honky-tonk and rockabilly to its bluegrass tunes to create its own sound

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

W ith the suits and the hats and the one microphone, five-piece Open Road certainly looks like it could have opened for the Stanley Brothers on some dusty festival stage in 1956.

Likewise, the northern Colorado bluegrass band has the unmistakable mid-century sound you would expect from any studious collector of old Bill Monroe records.

But as traditional as it comes, Open Road manages to add a little country honky-tonk and rockabilly to create a distinct sound. And that's something it's been aiming for since forming out of a Colorado bluegrass jam more than six years ago.

"Obviously, with guys like Bill Monroe and Flat and Scruggs we've paid a lot of attention to the music, listening to how they did things and the sounds they made," said mandolin player and co-founder Caleb Roberts. "But there are a lot of other bands that we found that were innovative in their sounds: Vern Williams Band in northern California, Bob Paisley Band in eastern Pennsylvania, Mac Martin in Pittsburgh."

"Bands like that had a distinct sound that was still within the realm of traditional bluegrass and a good number of unique songs that you just don't hear in jam sessions at all the bluegrass festivals," he said. "We're looking for bands that have that kind of quality of performance and that soulfulness of singing and convey a lot of power and feeling and emotion in their music."

Open Road plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 10, at Centennial Hall. The band is making its way to Haines Junction for the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival. The closest it's come to Alaska before is Victoria, British Columbia.

The band formed in theory in 1997 or 1998 when Roberts, from Columbia, S.C., and guitar player Bradford Lee Folk, of eastern Missouri, met in Colorado, where they've both lived since the mid-1980s. They jammed together and immediately started thinking about assembling a band.

"We've got a lot in common in what style of music we like," Roberts said. "We would give each other records that had some of our favorite recordings that maybe we'd like to record and play. We seemed to like each other's ideas and just had the same approach to making a band and collecting music. It was easy for us to put something together that came into our own sound."

Folk and Roberts got a few friends together and Open Road played its first show 512 years ago.

"We all knew each other from bluegrass jams," Roberts said. "There's one down in Pueblo (Colo.) that's a great festival where you meet people, and a block from my house (in Lyons, Colo.) is the RockyGrass Festival. So that's how it came together. Some people left for various reasons, but we still managed to stick together. We found people along the way who fit in real well."

The band now includes: Folk, guitar; Roberts, mandolin; Bobby Britt, fiddle; Keith Reed, banjo; and Eric Thorin, bass. Reed and Thorin have been playing with Open Road for the last two years.

About three years ago, after playing a festival in California, the band got its break. Fans began clamoring about the group on a Internet message board, and somehow that attracted the attention of Ken Irwin, owner of Rounder Records. The label eventually released Open Road's first two records, 2002's "Cold Wind" and this year's "In the Life."

"We've always recorded everybody at the same time," Roberts said. "We overdub harmony parts and things like that, but we try to get a feel for as much of the live show as we can. That's always been our approach."

"In the Life" begins with the Louvin Brothers' "Bald Knob Arkansas," winds through an assortment of Folk originals and concludes with the Bailey Brothers' "Mountain Laurel." Irwin recommended that song when the band visited his house in Massachusetts before recording.

"Certainly there's a bit more country honky-tonk in some of the songs on this new record," he said. "There's a little bit of the boogie-woogie rockabilly feeling, a whole different form from the sound that was part of Bill Monroe's music."

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