Not your father’s hillbillies 

Can Open Road teach an old genre new tricks?

There’s still a place where you can meet a gal named Linda Lou, and treating her right means buying her a cow and dressing her in calico. And if she mistreats you, or there just ain’t no food in yer craw, the obvious solution is a one-way ticket on a train to nowhere.

This place ain’t on no map, but you can get there in the songs of traditional bluegrass music. One of the tradition’s most faithful practitioners, Colorado’s Open Road, will be bringing their high lonesome sound to the Bitterroot Valley this weekend for the 15th annual Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival.

The anachronistic charm of this quintet, and of the genre as a whole, might be lost on most people, but among the local bluegrass community the band’s arrival is eagerly anticipated. “I finally got it together and stuck my neck out, you know, for the money for them to come,” says Festival Chairman Mark Dickerson. “And we’ve had nothing but high, high praise for choosing that group.”

For the last half century, bluegrass has occupied a relatively narrow bandwidth on the spectrum of popular appreciation, with bands like Leftover Salmon and The String Cheese Incident borrowing its conventions and instrumentation to noodle into the noggins of the jam-band set.

But you won’t catch any of Open Road’s boys taking 10-minute solos in their black suits and short-crowned Stetsons. Their sound is crisp, clean and hard-driving. Their attitudes and arrangements are modeled after the style established by the genre’s earliest icons, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.

“It goes back to what was new back in the ’30s and ’40s,” says Caleb Roberts, the band’s mandolin player and co-founder. “There’s a lot of power, a lot of feeling in that music that’s really inspiring to me, and it’s my favorite kind of music, really, and that’s why I play it. It’s something that inspires me, something I feel the best about playing.”

Like many traditional bluegrass bands, Open Road straddles the dotted yellow line between the past and the future, remaining true to their roots, but adding their own unique mark to the progression of the music.

“I’m real proud of representing those old sounds of original bluegrass music,” says Roberts. “Although I do like to think that we’ve got our own contribution to it, so it’s contemporary in a sense.”

Roberts cites the band’s distinctive approach to bluegrass rhythms and the high tenor twang of lead vocalist and guitarist Bradford Lee Folk (yes, that’s his real name) as the key elements of Open Road’s signature sound. Folk may sing from the heart, but his lyrics seem to come straight out of his nostrils in a register that even Roberts admits can intimidate the uninitiated listener.

“He’s a talent,” says Roberts. “Some people don’t like it, maybe. My sisters would rather hear me singin’, for example. In general it’s maybe even an acquired taste to appreciate it.”

But Folk’s vocals, disarming grin, and songwriting skills have won him many loyal fans, like Nate Biehl, mandolin player for the Missoula act, Broken Valley Roadshow.

“Bradford is the best contemporary bluegrass songwriter out there,” Biehl says. “His choice of words is right on the money. Nothing is ever forced.”

The band has come a long way in the six years since Roberts and Folk met at a jam session in Fort Collins, Colorado. With Eric Thorin on bass, Keith Reed on banjo and Bobby Britt on the fiddle, Open Road was nominated as Emerging Artists of the Year for the International Bluegrass Music Awards in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Bobby Britt has since left the band and been replaced by Paul Lee, formerly of Rye Straw.

It’s not likely that these boys will be nominated in that category again, as they are well on their way to becoming seasoned veterans of the tour scene. Their second record on the Rounder label, …in the life, hit the streets two months ago, and so far the record has sold twice as many copies in the same amount of time as their debut Rounder release, Cold Wind.

This success reflects the band’s efforts to establish national recognition through tireless touring and less-than-lucrative gigs. The band hopes it also reflects a growth in the fan base for bluegrass music in general, a trend that Dickerson sees as well.

“It just keeps getting bigger and better,” Dickerson says of the Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival. “A lot of people think that bluegrass is a bunch of hillbillies. Well it’s not. It’s all different kinds of people. We have doctors, lawyers, airplane pilots, all walks of life playing and enjoying bluegrass.” Last year the festival drew 2,375 people, and this year Dickerson is expecting over 2,500.

“In some places, of course, [bluegrass] has always been there,” says Roberts. “Other places, people are maybe just discovering it for the first time.” What sets great bluegrass bands apart, Roberts says, is their ability to reach people beyond the traditional bluegrass audience.

Dickerson and Roberts both agree that the Coen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou? provided a big boost for bluegrass music by opening a channel to the mainstream media for American roots music.

But regardless of how many new fans are converted at this year’s festival, there’s bound to be plenty of pickin’ and grinnin’ both on and off the stage. “I like to say, tongue in cheek, ‘the better music starts when the power goes off,’” says Dickerson. “There’ll be no less than 10 or 15 jam sessions going on all night long.”

For their part, Open Road has always found a receptive audience here in Montana, and the band is looking forward to spending a little more time under the Big Sky. “Montana’s always been good to us. It feels like our home audience,” says Roberts. “It’s a great place to get in the middle of nowhere and enjoy it.”

Open Road plays four shows—3 PM and 10 PM on Saturday, July 10, and 2 PM and 5 PM on Sunday, July 11—at the Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in Hamilton. The Festival runs Friday, July 9, through Sunday, July 11. Day passes cost $12, Saturday and Sunday only passes cost $22, and weekend passes cost $30. Camping is available. Additional festival performers include John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Sons of Ralph, Chris Stuart and Backcountry, Mountain Groan, Broken Valley Roadshow, and The Steep Canyon Rangers. Call (406) 363-1250 for more information.

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