Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys,
Somewhere Far Away
(independent, 2014)

Between 2002 and 2005 the Rounder label issued three CDs by Open Road, a bluegrass band based in Fort Collins, Colo. They were all excellent, and they were all inexplicably overlooked. The lead singer, Missouri native Bradford Lee Folk, possessed a strikingly evocative tenor that took downhome bluegrass vocals into a parallel universe of high-lonesome expressiveness. And that was only part of it. The rest was his original material. On these recordings Folk's songs have the resonance of folk songs. In his work, the past -- personal and cultural -- is a brooding presence, which the singer at once embraces and longs to escape. The melodies are rich and memorable.

After the band broke up in 2006, its members scattered. From time to time I wondered what had happened to Folk in particular. I learn now that Folk moved to East Nashville, where he operates a farm outside the city limits; in his off hours he resumes his musical career. If Somewhere Far Away has only eight cuts, their unusual length -- none shorter than three and a half minutes, the longest just over five -- stretches the album to 31 minutes, about as long as the average bluegrass album gets. It's unclear if the Bluegrass Playboys are a touring unit or just some pickers helping out Folk on the current project. Perhaps the essential point is that, in case there's any confusion on that score, Folk wants his sound to be identified as bluegrass.

Indeed, the album opens with Folk's "Foolish Game of Love," so history-drenched that one might presume it to have been borrowed from some immortal 1950s bluegrass band. From there, however, the music heads down an ever more open road. The second number, "Trains Don't Lie," is more securely in the Folk tradition, featuring a train both literal and metaphorical, memory, night, danger, distance, a fantasy of freedom in the open air. It is a wonderful song on any level you hear it, and though you know where Folk got the pieces, nobody else could have put them together quite like this.

A deep romanticism abides in most of the songs. It is not an erotic kind of romanticism, but a romanticism of land, nature, highways, railroads, hard times. Yet none of this jells into anything like straightforward narrative; the words float by as if sung by ghosts of ballads. In their way they're set in recognizable landscapes -- those conjured up by rambling troubadours of the Woody Guthrie school -- but they're also strange, dreamlike, unsettling.

Folk is a daring artist. In cold print a lyric here or there may seem a tad overwrought, but somehow he manages to keep his ambitions, which are high ones, in hand. Of Somewhere Far Away one can say that it at once subverts bluegrass and affirms its possibilities.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 May 2014

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