The Avett Brothers are Trojan-horse traditionalists. Unsuspecting audiences see three lads step on stage with the usual mountain picking accouterments – banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass. The ambush begins with the first pluck, when the expected high-lonesome is thwarted by a punk propulsion that would lullaby-ify Iggy Pop. And just when the mayhem reaches its threshold, instruments are flung around as though famed guitar smasher Pete Townshend had been mentoring off stage.
“To be honest, we don’t see ourselves as a bluegrass outfit,” says bassist Bob Crawford in a fit of understatement. Crawford’s the only non-sibling in the band that also comprises Scott Avett (banjo) and Seth Avett (guitar). “We’re not offended when people call us that, but it feels more like a rock band.”
Yet, this Concord-based trio just received its third invite to MerleFest, and can count past honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association among its coups. How do “outsiders” like the Avetts – who cite such influences as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Faith No More – continue getting included in a scene that thrives on the traditional (or at least a more soothing facsimile thereof)?
“We asked ourselves that question,” says Crawford, laughing. “It feels like home, and it means a whole lot to us to be invited back [to MerleFest] three times. Seth actually got to hang out with Doc Watson for a day when he was 13. Scott and Seth have that connection, and Doc is a major part of what we do.”
However, Crawford admits to receiving strong hecklings during their performance at the IBMA Awards. Even the message board on MerleFest’s Web site featured vitriolic responses to the trio.
“I was NOT alone when I left their show after the first song,” kvetched one of the unconvinced. “Everyone walking away was saying, ‘So basically I just need to be able to bang pots and pans together and I can play at MerleFest.’”
“The Avett Brothers fit our format perfectly because they are an Americana band,” protests Claire Armbruster, the festival’s artistic director. “The fun thing about them is that they have amazing energy, and their lyrics are oh-so-sweet.
“MerleFest fans seem to either really like them or really dislike them,” she says. “The band creates a lot of healthy discussion, which is good.”
But Crawford admits that even some rock enthusiasts have issues with the Avetts’ style.
“We were in Athens, Ohio, and Seth saw a flyer in a bathroom advertising the Avett Brothers,” he recounts. “And somebody had written over it, ‘Or you can go see a real rock ‘n’ roll band.’”
So where exactly do the Avett Brothers belong? The studio releases offer no help. Their previous album, Mignonette, is ballads inspired by a true story of cannibalism on the high seas. Their latest (and sixth overall), Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (due out Feb. 7 on Ramseur Records), dips into more genres than a used-records store. The press kit for the album alludes to the Everly Brothers, the Violent Femmes, Zeppelin, and Buddy Holly. Each song lends a new primal personality, and by the sweaty end, the listener will forego any labeling process.
Crawford admits that cabin fever is largely to “blame” for this creativity. The trio holed up in a house in Robbinsville (the rural westernmost tip of WNC) last January for 10 days. The bad weather prevented any outside reprieves.
“We were forced to write and learn songs, with the majority [of the album’s 17 songs] being worked out at the house,” he says. “Most of the improvisation came in the writing sense.
“It was a different kind of energy. The crowd is [usually] our main source of energy – at the mountain house, we were sending the energy between each other.”
Even more unorthodox is how Crawford came to the group. Scott and Seth had disbanded their hardcore metal outfit Nemo because their love for acoustic music had outgrown their desire for thrash. And Bob had heard the brothers were hunting fresh blood. His audition took place one late Sunday evening in an empty Media Play parking lot in Charlotte.
“I left there thinking this was something special,” he remembers.
He played one gig with them without a rehearsal, and then he didn’t hear from them for a month-and-a-half. Finally, the week after 9-11, Bob played one set with his other band, then sped across town to join the Avetts.
The first tour was promptly booked – to the tune of 21 gigs in 28 days.
Since 2001, the band has gone from playing to less than a dozen people to selling out Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre New Year’s Eve for four years running.
Which begs the question: Given the band’s many detractors, who is actually going to see these wily outsiders?
“When I look out in the crowd, I see a nice cross-section,” offers Crawford. “On one side, I’ll see people my age [20-30], and then I’ll look around and see ages 40 through 70.”
Typically, traditionalists of any breed are the ones who take issue with the trio. The rest are enthralled onlookers who want to see what new shenanigans the Avetts can pull off.
“Sometimes I even feel like a spectator,” says Crawford. “It’s like being in the eye of the storm.”
Outside with the In Crowd
Plenty of other musicians have braved the admittedly tricky pariah route to universal adoration. Here are a couple war stories:
• Sam Bush – whose band, New Grass Revival, spawned the advent of its namesake genre
“At first our looks and our music were a bit bewildering, but we always got along with the other old-timey musicians,” Bush told the Smoky Mountain News in 2001. “I remember one time at this festival, there was a group of … well, rednecks, that were really hassling me, and I thought I was about to get beat up, and Mac Wiseman came up and spoke to them and it was like the sea parted. When they saw that Mac Wiseman liked us, they left us alone.”
• Robbie Robertson – whose band played backup to Dylan when he introduced electric to shocked crowds expecting acoustic folk
“We were ducking tomatoes, eggs, and whatever they threw,” Robertson recounted to Relix‘s Josh Baron. “There was definitely a survival mode going on. We had no idea this was going to be like a musical revolution. Every night we came out, it didn’t matter what country, how far away, nothing – they booed every night. … And then you go on to the next place, set up your equipment, people come and they boo you, and it was like, this is a weird way to make a buck.”
[Hunter Pope writes Xpress’ weekly local-music column “Earful.”]
The Avett Brothers open for BR549 Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.). 8:30 p.m. $20 ($18/advance). 232-5800.