Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys
Somewhere Far Away
Five Of Diamonds Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The early 2000s were an exciting time in bluegrass music’s still-brief history.
In some ways a changing of the guard was underway, as the next generation of players and singers were emerging while first and second generation legends were feeling—in various ways—the hands of time.
In other places, the music was stretching as jazz, pop, mainstream, classical, and other influences were not only colouring the contemporary bluegrass sound, but in some cases were being wholeheartedly incorporated into the music.
While all this was occurring, there were—as there has always been—others who were taking the music back to its roots, defining bluegrass by building upon its very stable foundation.
Bands as diverse as the Infamous Stringdusters and the Grasshoppers hit the ground running. Pine Mountain Railroad and Nickel Creek could be heard alongside the Wilders and the Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show.
Youngsters straight out of college—and others still in high school—formed bands who performed largely original songs while ably demonstrating their mastery of the deep catalogue established by the Monroes, Osbornes, Stanleys, McReynoldses, and the west coast pioneers like Vern & Ray, bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, King Wilkie, Barefoot Bluegrass, and more.
Super groups like Rock County, the Grascals, BlueRidge, and Wildfire reinvigorated sidemen and veterans of the business. We were riding the O Brother bubble. Stringbands were everywhere, jam bands started to be welcomed into our world, and thanks to the increasing capabilities of the Internet, regional bands could connect with the wider bluegrass audience as never before.
Some of the groups are still going today, while more flamed out after a couple albums, and others faded away almost as quickly as they appeared: why didn’t the Circuit Riders ever achieve the level of prominence their debut album promised?
Of all the bluegrass bands that made a splash after the turn of the century, few held the potential of Open Road. Before their self-titled, Sally Van Meter-produced debut appeared, their name was beginning to be passed around by those who had caught a performance of the Colorado-based group. When that independent album—the one with BLUEGRASS prominently above the band’s name, and with the bold pronouncement/disclaimer “featuring 5-string banjo”—hit the player, converts were instantly made.
Their music had drive and fire. They were fronted by two young guys who seemed to have been born to play the bluegrass music, mandolinist Caleb Roberts and guitar picker and lead singer Bradford Lee Folk. Not only did they look the part—from their publicity photos, both could have been in the Clinch Mountain Boys around the time Skaggs and Whitley left—they recreated the classic sound of bluegrass wonderfully, as the cliché goes ‘making old songs sound new, making new songs sound old.’
Open Road toured relentlessly, signed on with Rounder Records and released two additional albums to great acclaim, Cold Wind and …in the life. They acknowledged their influences, some like Del Williams, Buzz Matheson & Mac Martin, and Vern & Ray, under-heralded within much of the broader bluegrass world. Their concert appearances were exciting and fresh, their albums ideal.
Around the time their third Rounder album appeared, the band broke up. The band had experienced personnel changes over time—fiddlers seemed to come and go with each new release—but shortly after Lucky Drive was released in 2005, Open Road was “flaming out from the pressures and temptations of being thrown into the touring musician life too young,” according to Folk’s current one-sheet.
I seem to recall hearing that Roberts was going to attempt to keep working the bluegrass road, but the last I heard he was in Colorado working for a living, but still picking. Folk sought stability, bought a Colorado honkytonk, booking bands in and working the other side of the music business table. From what I understand, he eventually relocated to Nashville, started gigging, and this past spring released his first recording in almost ten years, Somewhere Far Away.
The first thing one may notice when listening to the brief, eight-song collection is that things seem to be a bit mellower, less frenetic. There is no shortage of energy on this set of modern-Americana infused bluegrass. It is just that Folk isn’t in any great hurry to get to wherever it is he is taking us. The approach is perhaps a bit more mature, with a greater emphasis placed on mood and atmosphere.
The album’s lead track, like all but two of the songs a Folk original, is likely the one most reminiscent of the familiar Open Road approach. “Foolish Game of Love” features Matt Flinner’s mando at the fore, providing that audible connection to the music Folk previously made with Roberts. Folk pushes the music, his voice dipping into a purposeful near-mumble at some points, while at other moments in the song he is clear in his articulation. This expressive, mournful drawl works in counterpoint to the artful and lonesome clarity of his tenor, loading the song with restrained emotion.
Folk remains a great singer, but now is even more expressive in his communication than he was when he was younger. The fire has been tempered, but it continues to burn.
In some ways, and not only in its brevity, Somewhere Far Away recalls Jimmy Martin’s ‘good and country’ bluegrass albums. This recording is every bit as spirited as Martin’s finest recordings, but like them there is also a bit of an edge to the songs, a touch of bitterness and regret. “Trains Don’t Lie” is rich in atmosphere while conveying a narrative that is complete and compelling. “Denver” is a song that (I think) contrasts the longing for an open road with the comfort and familiarity of home.
Undoubtedly a bluegrass recording, Folk incorporates a very strong band to solidify his sound. Robert Trapp, the only member of Folk’s current Bluegrass Playboys appearing on the album, is a very strong 5-string player; his break and fills on “Never Looking Back”—a John Stewart-meets-Sam Bush epic in miniature—are impressive without detracting from the musicians working with him. With Flinner, Matt Combs (I’m guessing fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass, I’m hoping it is safe to suggest—the album doesn’t contain specific credits) round out the core group.
As an aside, “Never Looking Back,” by Jim Kelly, previously appeared (with a very different arrangement) on David Davis & the Warrior River Boys outstanding 2009 album, Two Dimes & A Nickel; Folk learned the song while he was playing with Davis—I’m guessing around the time that album was released—something I didn’t know he had done.
While there are only eight songs on the album, there is no shortage of memorable songs. A standout is the closing track, “Soil and Clay;” written by Folk, this earthy ballad is as dark as it is honest, much like a Fred Eaglesmith song. The album’s other non-original comes from Folk’s friend Nick Woods; “The Wood Swan” is another good one, and really showcases the various musicians’ abilities.
Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys may not receive the unbridled heralding that greeted Open Road. Somewhere Far Away is a bluegrass album, without doubt. But it is a different sort of bluegrass than that produced by Open Road. There are more shades to this music, more exploration of the gravel bits on the road’s shoulder rather than heading straight down the white lines in the middle of the highway.