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Country Crossroads 

The Avett Brothers keep their roots complex

Wednesday, Apr 25 2007
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Let's get one thing straight here, music lovers: The Avett Brothers are not an Americana outfit. True, the band has been genuinely impacted by classic roots music as performed by Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Merle Haggard. But the group — genetic siblings Scott (vocals, guitar, and banjo) and Seth Avett (guitar and vocals), and acoustic bassist Rob Crawford — isn't trying to exactly emulate its idols. "Playing at a bluegrass festival, we got heckled once, where a guy yelled, "Why don't you pick the banjo!'" admits Scott. "I approach the banjo rhythmically, more like a rhythm guitar." Obviously, these fellows have more on their minds than crossover action with overly tradition-conscious audiences.

Forming an acoustic act was subversive, however, for brothers raised on amplification. Scott and Seth's rock band Nemo was the bane of the upper-crust gentry of their Greenville, N.C., environs. Eventually, like so many (aging) rebellious youth, the musicians found they could only go so far with punk before their tastes broadened. They discovered methods of rebelling against formulas using unplugged instruments and an amiable volume level.

The Avett Brothers' forthcoming album Emotionalism, their seventh since 2002, comes on like a cross between the Band circa Music From Big Pink and the Violent Femmes' Hallowed Ground. The songs offer an emotionally direct, poetic yearning that juts up against a judiciously irreverent aesthetic. The Avetts don't waste time trying to convince the listener of their gosh-darn down-home authenticity. Instead, harmonies are rough, pitch is beside the point, and there are few displays of instrumental agility, but Emotionalism has lots of heart.

The disc is also punk rock, not like Mom and Dad used to make, but more like they'd probably make now. If the Ramones were reincarnated as folkies, they might sound like the Bro's on Emotionalism's tart 'n' perky opener "Die Die Die." Meanwhile, "Shame" possesses a raw, unvarnished ache common to Bonnie Prince Billy and Johnny Cash. Its skeletal, quasi-Appalachian structure lends the track an air of unforced eeriness, while the cadence of "Pretty Girl From San Diego" suggests the steel drums in Jamaican calypso. The best part of this new-album experience, though, is its unadorned, virtually under-produced feeling. "We were going for a live sound," explains Scott.

Their acoustic temperament, along with a resolute refusal to stick within the margins of country music, folk, and bluegrass, has offered the Avett Brothers unusual opportunities beyond the typical rock act slots. "It's opened many, many doors for us," Scott says. "We've opened for rock bands and played many folk and bluegrass festivals ... in amphitheaters and at coffee shops. When we played Morgantown, West Virginia's Sunshine Daydream Festival, the weather was so bad we ended up playing in a barn. We even got to play [on a bill] with [trad acoustic guitar wizard] Doc Watson," he adds proudly.

When asked if there are any contemporary bands also traveling on the Brothers' winding, pot-holed path, Scott mentions the Everybodyfields and New Yorkers Paleface and Langhorn Slim & His War Eagles. These acts share a modus operandi similar to that of the Brother-men, building distinctive personal styles with beloved aspects of folk and blues while happily not crosschecking the early blueprints too closely.

About The Author

Mark Keresman

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