10/03/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Backstage Pass: Enjoy a Bit of Bradford Lee Folk Lore

Bradford Lee Folk was on a quest to quench his thirst.

He needed a drink real bad, but it's not what one might think just another hard-working American musician not affiliated with Todd Snider's supergroup project would crave after a show.

"You don't have a glass of water in your car, do ya?" he asks shortly after playing an AmericanaFest showcase at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville on Sept. 20. "I'll give you $10 for it."

Of course, Folk was joking, but somewhere deep inside was the sound of a distressed but kind-hearted soul whose hardscrabble life recently has found more valleys than peaks.

Folk, the New Orleans-born, Missouri-raised bluegrass singer-songwriter who co-founded Open Road, one of Colorado's hottest roots acts during its eight-year existence, is admittedly struggling to make it as a solo artist these days.

It's not for lack of trying, he says. Most days begin with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call to get to work by 7 at an organic farm outside Nashville, where he'll pull weeds or harvest tomatoes when he isn't riding a John Deere tractor.

On hard day nights, he'll take his acoustic guitar -- the one without a plug -- anywhere close to home, like the downtown Station Inn, with occasional festival dates on the road if he can afford it.

The invitation to play AmericanaFest 2014 came out of the blue a few months ago, Folk said, when he got a text message from Michelle Aquilato, the festival producer responsible for acquiring acts.

Folk's been there before, remembering he had so much fun performing with Del McCoury's band "back in 2000, 2001 maybe," that his absent-mindedness led to a lost guitar strap and his trademark cowboy hat inside the same club that has experienced its own transformation.

If the chance to return to the festival as a solo artist could be considered a break at this stage of the game, Folk wasn't counting on it.

"I don't expect anything," Folk said, sounding like his musical agenda is as spontaneous as the rest of his life. "I expect the weeds to grow."

Folk most definitely is one of those break-the-mold characters you'll never forget after one chance meeting.

Unconventional for sure, he initially didn't seem like the best candidate to conclude this "Backstage Pass" series covering Nashville-based performers at AmericanaFest. Yet he turned out to be up for a bit of frivolity, and curious enough to have a few questions of his own.

Asked if he has any pre-show dining preferences, Folk took a light-hearted subject in a darker direction.

"I like to get something to eat when I can," he said. "Two days ago, I had $6 in my pocket, 'cause my wife quit her job after working for this horrible person. ... So I've been working a lot at the farm and stuff. Honestly, I always forget to pack enough protein and I get light-headed. Long days and stuff like that."

Folk was serious but more that's-the-fact-Jack than poor-poor-pitiful-me while displaying a quirky sense of humor throughout the brief interview, where "backstage" was actually a parking lot outside the club where he had just played with members of his current group, the Bluegrass Playboys.

After he was given the remaining couple of swigs from a water bottle found inside a rental car, an appreciative Folk said, "Perfect, thank you. A little bit goes a long way."

As he continued, it was obvious Folk is nowhere near where he wants to be.

"But yeah, man, we have a hard life as far as that's concerned. We try to get good food and get a routine going but, man, as soon as you think you're getting something, then something happens. You gotta go to the vet or all of a sudden you're broke again. It just gets harder and harder. ... It's a struggle. It's real. Everybody works hard. You got to. The economy the way it is, you just can't be complacent. You can't get comfortable. You can't be content hardly because it's like you can never get ahead. They throw out everything for free and music's free now and everything else goes up. Gas isn't free. Gas doesn't go down."

Folk's 3rd & Lindsley showcase, on a Saturday night when the Avett Brothers were headlining at Riverfront Park, was wedged between Miss Tess & the Talkbacks and the Steep Canyon Rangers. While there were a few loyal supporters politely clapping for him, many in the room talked loudly over his fairly laid-back set.

One female fan greeted Folk outside afterward and clearly was irritated that the likable, charismatic performer with a bright smile didn't get the attention he deserved, saying she wanted to tell the miscreants to "shut the fuck up!"

After consoling the woman, Folk asked to find a more secluded spot so the well-wishers, while bringing him a sense of satisfaction, wouldn't interrupt the conversation.

Returning later to his thoughts about the rude crowd, Folk simply smiled and said, "Yeah, it's OK. You don't win 'em all. That's the way it is, man."

Along the Open Road
Folk does know what it's like to taste success.

Based in Fort Collins, Colorado, Open Road came together about the same time people freaked out about Y2K and went bonkers over the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

The band formed by Folk and Slim Cessna's Auto Club founding member Caleb Roberts was heralded for its traditional approach to bluegrass, and musicians such as Jim Lauderdale and Hot Rize's Pete Wernick, Colorado's Dr. Banjo, sang their praises.

They recorded three albums for Rounder Records, and label co-founder Ken Irwin said the first time he heard Folk sing "he made me, and I think most others in the room, feel like he was singing directly to us."

Open Road was nominated for emerging artist of the year awards by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2001 and 2002, played showcases at the Americana Music Association festival (2003) and South By Southwest (2004), and performed at two of Planet Bluegrass' prestigious festivals -- in 2003 at Telluride, and four times at RockyGrass in Lyons, Colorado.

"That's when we were kicking ass," Folk said fondly of those years when his group wore snazzy suits and white Stetsons. (Folk is second from the right on the Open Road album cover from 2002.)

According to his biography compiled by Hearth PR, the end of this Open Road in 2006 had mostly to do with succumbing to "the pressures and temptations of being thrown into the touring musician life too young" than anything else.

Before moving to Nashville, the itinerant son of a former Sisters of St. Joseph nun -- "John Paul II told them to go out and meet everybody. ... And they did," he said, laughing -- and a country blues musician who now plays in a California church, held various jobs in Colorado.

Folk went from cattle ranching to co-owning Swing Station, a bar in Laporte, nestled between Fort Collins and Bellvue.

Plenty of stellar bands have played at the nearby Mishawaka Amphitheatre, an outside venue up the Poudre Canyon that's second only to Red Rocks among outdoor venues in the state, but by then Folk considered himself a "retired touring musician." At least he was still connected to the music scene as lead guitarist in Swing Station's house band, the Happy Honkies.

"Bring Everything"
Now he's got the Bluegrass Playboys, with skilled members that include Robert Trapp (banjo), Nathan Swartz (mandolin) and Joshua Clell Langford (fiddle, mandolin and more).

They don't operate from a set list, Folk acknowledged, but he does have a plan.

"Remember Charles Sawtelle from Hot Rize?" Folk asked of the late bassist who was an original member of the formidable bluegrass band that included Tim O'Brien. "He always said, 'Bring everything.' You don't know until you get there. We change on a dime, feeling the groove and energy in the room and go from there."

Only a handful of touring dates are currently listed on Folk"s website, but he is excited to be returning to Colorado to play Denver's Midwinter Bluegrass Festival in February.

"It's different now than when we were playing for Rounder Records," Folk said, a white cowboy hat the lone remnant from those halcyon days. "We had a lot of support. It's a lot easier to be seen when you're with something like that at that time, of course. Everything's different now, so you just try ... you learn as quick as you can. You reset your defense and just kind of adapt to what's going on in the field. We've got a lot to learn about it."

At least he still has unforgettable moments to cherish, like his most recent RockyGrass appearance, where Open Road reunited for one show in 2011.

Folk already had made the move to Nashville, but it was in Colorado where the true romantic made that occasion extra special. While onstage, he proposed to his future wife, Lindsay Warren of Fort Collins.

In a subsequent email sent through his publicist, Folk wrote: "She was coincidentally wearing a white dress. She stood out like a sore thumb! And in front of 8,000 people she couldn't say no. ;)"

They were married this May in another appropriate location -- down on the farm.

Ramble On
I was born to ramble, and I guess I've done my share /
Highways come easy Lord, roads that lead nowhere

-- Bradford Lee Folk, "Never Looking Back"

Finally with an album of his own, Folk's Somewhere Far Away includes eight songs he wrote, all alone except for the title cut. That one he penned with Nick Woods, who was a member of the Orioles and the Cheap Seats.

Woods also was lured to Nashville, saying goodbye to Richmond, Virginia, by playing a farewell show for free at The Camel on Dec. 13, 2011.

"He's the only one I've ever written any songs with," Folks said of Woods. "And him and I kind of ... well, we write songs. To make it short, we're really close friends and we write songs together. And he's like changed my life. ... He's a great songwriter."

"Somewhere Far Away," like the album, starts out sweet, but suddenly turns melancholy, making one wonder what prompted the lines: "Everyone says that I'm dying, living too fast / But I like to watch the bottle get empty."

Those sentiments aren't exactly in line with the hopeful feelings Folk expressed after just missing the Steep Canyon Rangers ("they're old friends of mine") wrap up a stunning set before the clock struck midnight to signal the start of AmericanaFest 2014's final day.

"I've been so inspired by my friends that have done well and have inspired all of us to be creative and keep an open mind and keep alive," Folk said, sounding like he doesn't have a jealous bone in his body. "I'm just so thankful for them, and for those kinds of people."

It's amazing how many sides Bradford Lee Folk could reveal in a 20-minute interview. Unpredictable, charming, caring, straightforward, absurd, sincere, mysterious, hilarious and forlorn were just a few.

Maybe it's a guessing game Folk created, and he just wants the rest of us to play along.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from AmericanaFest 2014. See the previous "Backstage" articles with Justin Wade Tam and Leslie Rodriguez of Humming House and Toronto transplant Lindi Ortega.


Following in the tradition of previous "Backstage Pass" interviewees, Bradford Lee Folk offered some random thoughts about his profession. Some snippets from the Q&A:

Noticed you had a beer onstage. What's your favorite beverage during a show?
Ha-ha-ha. That's a good question. I would say a light, cold beer, whatever's handy. (Tonight), I had a Yuengling from backstage.

Do you still get nervous before a show?
I get, uh ... it's not nervousness, particularly, it's more of an excitement. It's uncomfortable sometimes. Sometimes it's disturbing. I try to lay down and get peace and quiet and rest. I always say I like to save all the extra time for the end. Just to get everything up and ready. I hate to rush. So I like to get everything set up the best I can and then rest, just get some quiet time.

Any superstitions as a musician?
Honestly, I don't have time for superstitions. (laughs) Because I'm not that regular because of all the stuff that goes on, as far as life. And trying to cut it, you know, trying to get somewhere. I hardly ... I got so many things to think about all the time. It's like starting your own business. When you're starting, you're scratching at it. You're trying to get up somewhere, you're trying to do something and you run out of time. (laughs)

Do you have any good-luck charms you bring onstage?
I have a four-leaf clover in my back pocket. I've got a knife in my boot. I'm ready to go. And I've got my guitar with me and my wife. That's the biggest things. But I'm always ready. In Nashville, you've gotta be ready.

Do you have a pet name for your guitar?
No. I have a pet name for my wife. We're newlyweds. Sometimes I call her Bobo. I just love her so much. But that's when we're snuggling up. It's easy to say. Kinda gives her a buzz on the side of the neck.

Which cover songs do you never get tired of covering?
Man, I listen to a lot of old records and I've spun a lot of little 45s and a lot of 10-inch records, a lot of 33s, and I've got one called, "Swing, Duck and Uppercut." It's by this guy from Holland. His name's Don Cavalli. He's been a rockabilly guy and he's been a vampire, I think. I mean you can't even believe how interesting this guy is, Don Cavalli. ... He's a cult hero, you know. He writes this song about (starts singing):

There's a bottle of booze in the Frigidaire
Joints are smoking in the ashtray
Put the pistol back in the drawer.

One thing led to the other. I've been listening to a lot of Chalino Sanchez, this Mexican singer I like. I think I'm gonna do a Mexican record. It's just 'cause I like these guys, like these Norteno singers from Mexico. They're kinda like the honky tonkers of Mexico. And there's beautiful, soaring melodies and great, beautiful songs. And these corridos are like about running from the law, you know, like, wild adventuresome songs. So I listen to some of that, too.

Is there a cover you are sick and tired of covering and will never play again?
No. Because I love the music that I play. I do covers all the time. Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Webb Pierce songs, Kitty Wells. ... So I do do covers but I never get sick of any, I don't think. ... But I don't play covers. You know, like on Broadway (in downtown Nashville), they play all the covers. You've got to do that to get tips. And I've done that. We do really well there, but it's not from playing 'Rocky Top.' It's just not. We play 'Rocky Top.' We will, maybe later tonight around 4 a.m. But it's not gonna be onstage right now, you know.

What's your favorite thing on social media?
My favorite thing to do on social media, if it's considered that, is my YouTube channel and (the one) with this dude from Kentucky. His name is a James Stiltner. And he posts this music on there that I've never heard before. It's old records and they're amazing. And I'm thankful for him because he's shown me so much great music that I never heard.

Besides doing interviews, what do you do to unwind after a show?
Just normal stuff. Nothing crazy. Just walk around, then go home. And then get ready to wake up. I don't have a television, but I listen to music sometimes. And if I'm unwinding, I listen to classical music.