By: Dennis Cook
"We notice that when sunlight hits the body, the body turns bright, but it throws a shadow, which is dark. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow," writes poet-philosopher Robert Bly in his pithy 1988 essay, A Little Book On The Human Shadow, which he describes as "the long bag we drag behind us. We spend our life until we're twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag, and the rest of our lives trying to get them out again."
The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers reach down deep into that sack, pulling out dirt coated spirituals and tattered love ballads. Their folk-founded, punk-inflected ditties wrestle with mortality and the aftermath of one's choices. While truth, in the meta sense, becomes ever more elusive in this snake oil age, the Avetts continually offer up something honest, real life ensnared by bright strings and roughly incandescent tongues.
"The music may last forever but we won't. There's no way we'll last forever, and that theme comes up a lot in the songwriting," says bassist and vocalist Bob Crawford, one-third of the Avett Brothers along with siblings Scott (banjo, vocals) and Seth Avett (guitar, vocals). "Everything has a beginning and an ending. I think it's really bittersweet. That's the truth of life, and I think that's what people lock into with us."
Nothing More Than Feelings
With boatloads of shame and heartbroken honeys, the Avetts' latest, Emotionalism (released May 15 on Ramseur Rec.), has the head-waggin' verve of early Beatles married to Appalachian pluck and the grease slapped wisdom of John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III. Released this month, it hit #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, debuted at #134 on the Billboard 200 and #13 on the Billboard Indie Chart. Their seventh album in six years since forming in Greenville, NC, Emotionalism never flinches at the intermingling of shadow and light. Like all scruffy sages, they're unsparing in their assessment of themselves, which in turn makes it harder for us to ignore our own warts and scars. This verse from "The Weight Of Lies" encapsulates their smartly cloudy perspective:
The Avett Brothers by Anthony Pidgeon
Disappear from your hometown
Go and find the people that you know
Show them all the good parts
Leave town when the bad ones start to show
Go and wed a woman
A pretty girl that you never met
Make sure she knows you love her well
But don't make any other promises
The weight of lies will bring you down
And follow you to every town
'Cause nothing happens here that doesn't happen there
Dictionary.com defines Emotionalism as "a tendency to display or respond with undue emotion, especially morbid emotion." That'll do though it misses the Brothers' sweetness and unforced humor. "It just seems to fit. I think a lot of people try to categorize what we do, and [Emotionalism] is the common thread to what we do," says Crawford. "It's tough to categorize things. I think that's how the title was chosen. There's so many descriptions of our music and they're all true in some way. It's always a piece of something."
"In this day and age, music is a hybrid of ten things. Nothing is pure," continues Crawford. "It's not as clear-cut as it used to be. If you like Americana then that's what you hear in us, but if you like Nirvana maybe you hear us from a different direction. If it's a 65-year old guy who likes Flatt and Scruggs or Charlie Poole he may see it from another perspective. People have compared us to Manassas [Stephen Stills's short lived '70s outfit] and The Band. A fella at the Washington Post once wrote we were Robert E. Lee singing for The Ramones. Who knows what Robert E. Lee's voice sounded like? I've never even seen a description and I've read history. That Southern-ness does filter in. I'm from New Jersey so I hear it plain as day. We live in a time where geographic influences are getting less and less but I think it's in what we do more than saying it's bluegrass or country or rock 'n' roll or punk."
"We'd approached our earlier records in a run-and-gun way – let the tape roll and we'll do the basic tracks with a couple overdubs. On Emotionalism every detail was crafted, and there were more thought out and experimental overdubs," Crawford observes. "With Four Thieves Gone [their previous record], we sequestered ourselves in a mountain house in Robbinsville, NC for about 10 days. We brought an engineer with us, lugged in a piano and worked about 12 hours a day. We recorded 32 songs in 10 days that we listened to six months later when we cleaned them up a bit. Emotionalism was the complete opposite. We went to a studio in Asheville, NC [Echo Mountain Recording], a real high quality place, great atmosphere. It's an old church. We worked with co-producers, Bill Reynolds and Danny Kadar, which we'd never done before. The two experiences were polar opposites."
The Avett Brothers