Open Road is the ultimate post-modernist bluegrass band. Their look harkens back to the days when bands wore dark suits with white hats and they performed clustered around a single monaural microphone. Their music also sounds as if Elvis, The Beatles, blues-rock, psychedelic rock, and new country music had never existed. Welcome to 1946 filtered through a band whose oldest member wasn't even alive when 1946 came around the first time.
Open Road's second Rounder release features more covers than its previous outing. In the Life has only three originals from Bradford Lee Folk, whose uncanny ability to create songs that you'd swear were forty years old gave the band a good part of their original retro sound. But this CD focuses on Open Road's ability to render classic honky-tonk tunes such as Howard Harlan's "Pick Me Up" and George Jones' "One is the Lonely Number" with an authentic bluegrass flavor. Bradford Lee Folk and Caleb Roberts have perfected a rural hillbilly twang to their vocal deliveries that sounds as heartfelt as any you'll find on an old ‘40's Smithsonian field recording. Unlike many modern bluegrass bands whose perfectly intonated three part harmonies make up a major part of their appeal, Open Road primarily uses only two-part harmonies that come across with a purposefully ragged edge. Don't infer that Open Road's music is sloppy; on the contrary, Open Road's arrangements are carefully orchestrated so each song has shape, dynamics, and classic bluegrass form.
Open Road's instrumental styles also have just the right musicological rigor to sound old. Caleb Robert's direct and unadorned mandolin style, based on tremolo and double stops, played through his early ‘20's Lloyd Loar signed F-5 sounds as if he's channeling Bill Monroe. Both Bobby Britt on fiddle and Keith Reed on banjo also play in a very traditional style. Their work on the instrumental "Suwannee River Hoedown" reminds me of Chubby Wise and Earl Scruggs in Bill Monroe's early 50's Bluegrass Boys.
Engineer Colin Bricker and Open Road's longtime producer Sally Van Meter deserve credit for not only capturing Open Road with fine fidelity, but also duplicating the feel of a vintage recording. The sound isn't antique-like in terms of sonic quality, yet the recording has the same spontaneity and relaxed ambiance as many classic bluegrass records where the band had only a day or so between road trips to fit in a bit of recording. Obviously this was not the case here, but In The Life demonstrates that modern technology can be used in a transparent way to recreate a vibrancy that all too often is lost due to recording engineers and producers fixated on perfection rather than music.
In The Life reinforces Open Road's unique place in the bluegrass universe as the finest post-modern neo-classical band on the planet. They combine historically correct musical arrangements with a precise visual image to transport you back to a time when bluegrass music was the most vibrant and exciting musical form in America, and they do it with a total absence of cynicism and artificiality. In the words of Bill Monroe "That's powerful music."