Open Road follows traditional bluegrass path |

Open Road follows traditional bluegrass path

Stewart Oksenhorn

Bluegrass, said Caleb Roberts, the mandolinist and singer for Colorados Open Road, is a living art form. Its progressing.Since co-founding Open Road, with singer-guitarist Bradford Lee Folk, in 1999, the 34-year-old Roberts has had plenty of opportunity to see the many ways bluegrass is developing. The quintet which also features bassist Eric Thorin, fiddler Robert Britt and banjoist Keith Reed has traveled across the States; the current itinerary had the group returning from Austins South By Southwest Festival at the beginning of the week, leaving two days later for the Northern Illinois in Naperville Bluegrass Music Festival, and then returning to Colorado, where the band closes the Wheeler Opera Houses Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music on Sunday, March 28.In Texas, Roberts has heard bluegrass blended with country swing. In Colorado, where he has lived since 1990, Roberts has seen bluegrass take on a jam-band flavor. In Northern California, said Roberts, the music is often played in its most traditional form.Interestingly, it is the Southeast, where the music was born and still thrives, that Roberts sees as the vanguard of bluegrass. Established Southern acts like the Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out are making what Roberts thinks of as contemporary bluegrass.From my perspective, it continues to grow and keep itself fresh as much in the South as anywhere, he said. You have people there who are so familiar with the traditional sound, growing up with it, and they are pushing the boundaries in different directions.Open Road has opted for a more traditional sound. That might explain their popularity in Northern California, which Roberts says rivals their home turf of Colorados Front Range as their biggest market. Open Road has little in common with their neighbors Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band, who have made names for themselves as much on the jam-band circuit as in bluegrass circles. The sound is marked by Folks high tenor and an all-acoustic instrumentation; Open Roads members wear suits and cowboy hats onstage, and perform around one microphone.We have an appreciation for the traditional sound the power of simplicity, of beautiful melodies and making the melodies stand out, said Roberts, who was raised in Columbia, S.C., on his fathers recordings of bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Our music reflects the traditional sounds that make bluegrass different than other types of music.But Roberts doesnt see the band as beholden to a particular sound of the past. Crediting Folks voice, which he says some people love and others dislike, Roberts believes Open Road has, in its five years, made its own unique contribution to bluegrass. On the bands most recent CD, 2002s Cold Wind, Folks voice does indeed stand out on a set of mostly original songs that dont depart much from the traditions. Weve matured to the point where we have our own sound, said Roberts. If we play anybody elses songs, like a Bill Monroe song, we dont try to copy it off the record. We just play it the way we play it.The variety of regional flavors seems to be a good thing for bluegrass. Open Road has traveled from Maine to Texas to New York City, and hasnt encountered a bluegrass void anywhere on the route.Ive been to 48 states and heard of bluegrass in all of them, said Roberts. There are no dead spots. Ive heard of bluegrass bands in Hawaii. Maine is into it. Weve played twice in New York City. There are a lot of bands in Kansas.To Roberts, the essential truth about bluegrass is the same as it is with all other art forms: Play it well, and they will come. If its good music, people appreciate it everywhere, he said.Beyond Bluegrass, which opened Wednesday night with the trio of Todd Phillips, David Grier & Matt Flinner, continues through Sunday, March 28, with nightly concerts at the Wheeler.Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, with the Lone Pine Bluegrass Band opening, is set for Thursday, March 25. Dobroist Jerry Douglas leads his band on Friday, March 26, with singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan opening. On Saturday, March 27, its the Seldom Scene, with the Crowlan Ferlie Celtic Band opening. The series concludes with a double bill of Open Road and Bearfoot Bluegrass on Sunday, March 28.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is