AVETT BROTHERS: LET YOUR COLORS SHOW

By: Dennis Cook


The Avett Brothers
"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 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


The Avett Brothers by Anthony Pidgeon
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:

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."


The Avett Brothers
"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."

 
A fella at the Washington Post once wrote we were Robert E. Lee singing for The Ramones.

-Bob Crawford

 

Travelin' Around

The initial vision for The Avett Brothers didn't include heavy touring but over the past couple years they've become regulars at folk and rock clubs nationwide and a festival mainstay. Live, they have the energy one encounters on scratchy 78s - unbridled joy in making music with the gruff rightness of Blind Willie Johnson or the aforementioned Charlie Poole, with whom Crawford says they share "a kinship with his plainspoken rawness."


The Avett Brothers
"It always needs to be new. It always needs to be interesting. We don't have a lot in common with jam bands but we've never had a setlist from day one. Sometimes our shows can be real informal, where we're discussing what to do next onstage. Everything is an audible," says Crawford.

Crawford discusses joining The Avett Brothers, "In Spring of 2001, I was in college studying jazz guitar and had just started playing upright bass. A buddy of mine knew Scott and said they had an electric bass player but were looking for an upright bassist. It was a long process. Scott took off that summer, panhandling and trying to follow the footsteps of Woody Guthrie as best you could in 2001. When he came back it was real slow – a gig or two, then time off, then another gig or two – until the Saturday after September 11th. After that weekend it all gelled."

"Initially, we mostly played covers around Charlotte, NC but there wasn't much talk of taking it on the road or even a future. We were doing Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, traditional stuff like The Dillards and tunes like 'Boil The Cabbage Down,' 'Old Joe Clark,' 'Going Down The Road (Feeling Bad),' old chestnuts like that. There are many great careers built on those songs."


The Avett Brothers
"A lot of bands lumped into the jam category aren't writing original material, they're interpreting music, which is a skill in itself. If you're talking about 'jam' as a genre of music, the great thing is it's not a genre. After Branford Marsalis played with the Dead he started getting all these hippy kids showing up at his concerts because he can really play. These kids would go to these stuffy $40 a ticket jazz concerts because they thought it rocked."

The band usually has an album's worth of backlogged material that makes it into their sets, just one element in their quest to keep things interesting for themselves and any friendly ears out there.

"You're in a situation where you need to move as a team at all times but everybody needs their alone time, their down time, and some people wanna zig when others want to zag. We've been doing this for six years and we've always done well with it. There's never problems that don't fade away in an hour," comments Crawford.

"For me, three has always been the magic number. We've been able to make a big sound for just three people," he continues. "Lately, we've been adding elements like cellist Joe Kwon [who appears on Emotionalism and tours frequently with the band these days], switching it up for our sake. A lot of people are just starting to hear about us. What they'll see isn't what brought us to the table in the first place but hopefully that'll still shine through. It'll be fuller, which is good for the music and good for us, but we did build this thing with three of us. I guess when you build a strong foundation then everything you put on top of it is going to be real nice."

 
It always needs to be new. It always needs to be interesting. We don't have a lot in common with jam bands but we've never had a setlist from day one.

-Bob Crawford

 

The Flow of Brotherly Things

While the core instrumentation suggests roots music – banjo, acoustic guitar, double bass – there's a wide sweep of styles that makes them impossible to fully pin down. Emotionalism has Django Reinhardt jazz skip ("Paranoia in Bb Major," "Pretty Girl From San Diego"), twisted bubblegum hand-clappers ("Die Die Die," "Will You Return?") and the CBGB's electric smackdown hiding in the backend of "Pretty Girl From Chile." You sense their varied personalities in the compositions, which are always credited to the group rather than an individual.


The Avett Brothers
"Someone will bring the skeleton of an idea – a few words or the chords – and it takes a band to flesh it out," says Crawford. "More and more, Scott and Seth trade off ideas. A lot of it is a 50-50 share lyrically. I hear these stories about brothers that fight, brothers that are jealous of each other, and I've never seen that with them, not even in the smallest ways. Their father told them when they were real young that there's enough people in this world that'll be against them in life and they should be each other's best friend. They carry that through and share it with the rest of us. It's not 'us against the world' necessarily but it is us going through this together and ego isn't an issue."


The Avett Brothers
The ladies continue to be a fertile source of ink for their pens, with Emotionalism adding three more to their ongoing "Pretty Girl" series. "I think the initial inspirations fade away and they take on a greater symbolic life," Crawford observes. "I can't speak for the guys on this but the song goes on to have its own life. It might mean one thing but could mean something completely different for someone else. That's how it is with music I like and have brought close to my heart. I could interpret it to my life and what I needed it to mean at the time, and from talking with people I think some of them do that with our songs."

Regardless of any newfound sophistication, The Avett Brothers retain a wonderful hootenanny charisma where you halfway expect to be handed a jug of home brew during their shows.


The Avett Brothers
"None of us, except for Joe Kwon, are virtuosos. People see us and think, 'That's something I could do!' I watch someone like Edgar Meyer play bass, and I love it but I could never do that. I could never be like Oteil [Burbridge] or Victor Wooten, not if I stopped at 36-years old what I'm doing now and went home to practice 14 hours a day. We're not too good at playing with other people, sitting around a circle and jamming. We don't know a lot of the songs but we know where they come from," says Crawford.

Critics of Emotionalism have been bringing up the Beatles a lot but Crawford says it hasn't fazed them a bit.

"I haven't read too many reviews. We try not to pay heed to it. That's the best way to do it. It's nice that it's said but I don't buy it. When you compare somebody to something that's come before you're talking about a moment in history where many factors converged. The playing field was right for a certain thing to happen that never happened before, and it created sounds and melodies that'd never come before. I guess history bears things out. I can tell you no one here is buying it. We've never done anything but what we do. Ever. The sound that comes out is us."

JamBase | North Carolina
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Comments

aburtch starstarstarstarstar Thu 5/31/2007 08:33PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

aburtch

Great Article! The Avett Brothers are absolutely the best thing going right now. They've been rockin' NC for years and are just starting to spread their wings outside the Southeast. Their shows are amazingly high energy which makes for a great time. One time they played down east and the entire crowd was shouting every word to every song...they seem to have that effect on people. "Emotionalism" is a fantastic album. I recommend it along with "Mignonette" and "Carolina Jubilee." Thanks for the fresh look at an amazing group.

pbandJAM7 Thu 5/31/2007 11:04PM
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man oh man! i can not get enough of these guys. i am getting the chance to see them play two nights in a row in knoxville then chattanooga. this new album is phenominal. long live the avett's

GrantedProductions starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/1/2007 02:07AM
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GrantedProductions

yo... great article denis cook! cheers!

GrantedProductions Fri 6/1/2007 02:07AM
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GrantedProductions

dennis... sorry

avetts1 starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/1/2007 06:52AM
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The Avett Brothers are the best! Great article!

torn&treyed Fri 6/1/2007 08:36AM
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they should play with yonder

drew52deal starstarstarstar Fri 6/1/2007 08:38AM
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Great band doing great things....and deserving it all....Definitely go check these guys out as soon as possible...you will be impressed - guaranteed

great article

OysterDead starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/1/2007 07:31PM
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OysterDead

Amazing Lyricists... not to many bands out know make you feel the way they do. Kudos to them.

"I want my soul to feel brand new"
"I wanna keep runnin' all day and all night even when my mind tells my body thats enough...."

A Gift for Melody Anne check it...


Emo starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/1/2007 08:32PM
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The only thing better than the Avetts is Toubab. Not a bad time to live in the carolinas...

Him starstarstarstarstar Mon 6/4/2007 01:44PM
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Him

Great Artical. They just killed it at the Asheville Music Jamboree this past weekend. People were Ragin' to their sounds! Nice guys also, and true to life as it should be.

Alway a great New Years Eve gig at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte for the hometown fans too!

intracoastalwaters starstarstarstarstar Tue 6/5/2007 10:56AM
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intracoastalwaters

I too saw them at the Asheville Music Jamboree and was completely blown away. I had never seen or even heard of the Avett Brothers before, but they are now one of my favorites. Their show had so much raw energy. It was just plain old fun. "Backwards with time" & "Drop the Hammer" were two of my favorites they played.
Great article and interview. I especially like the quotes from Bob Crawford.

dedliug Wed 6/6/2007 06:41AM
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just dug into the discography (thank you rhapsody) and saw the live show energy (thanks youtube) and can't wait to see these guys at the soiled dove here in cowtown in august

avetts = WOW!

bertolet Wed 6/6/2007 08:31AM
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bertolet

I just read this article and felt compelled to pick up "Emotionalism." Blown away. And I am not easily blown away. This is soul-cleansing music for people honest enough to realize our souls are all a little filthy. Thanks for writing about The Avett Brothers.

Meatcampjon Sun 6/10/2007 05:23PM
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These guys are just amazing. I saw them at Asheville Music jamboree two weeks ago and it was just something else.

Indie/Bluegrass?

aburtch Fri 6/15/2007 12:54PM
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aburtch

"Indie/Bluegrass?"

Yeah, I like to call it Bill Monroe meets Black Flag!

moejoerisin Sat 6/23/2007 02:39PM
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moejoerisin

more like indie punkgrass... it's great stuff - saw them at moe.down last year and they really knocked my socks off.. these guys are the real deal

Sinister Vinister starstarstarstarstar Sun 7/1/2007 12:31PM
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Sinister Vinister

Just saw them for the first time at Telluride. Awsome! Can't wait to see them again and again.

Sheryl Wed 7/25/2007 11:28PM
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Sheryl

This band is worth your attention and hard earned cash.