Banjo’s siren call

Much of Avett Broth­ers’ ap­peal comes from their roots in a kind of rus­tic, ‘au­then­tic’ Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence that’s taken on nearmyth­i­cal res­o­nance.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - by ScOTT TiM­beRg

WITH their banjo/gui­tar/stand-up bass line-up, earnest vo­cal har­monies, and back story grow­ing up on a North Carolina farm, the Avett Broth­ers seem like the kind of old­time folk band that emerges al­most lit­er­ally out of the soil.

But Scott Avett, who’s got a scrag­gly beard and pro­nounced Pied­mont ac­cent he came about hon­estly, was not handed his banjo as a tod­dler while out rak­ing hay.

“I’m ab­so­lutely blown away by how many 15-and 16-year-olds are play­ing the banjo,” he says of to­day’s surge in in­ter­est in Ap­palachian and acous­tic mu­sic. “When I was a kid, I wasn’t get­ting near a banjo! No chance!”

It’s hard to talk about the present of the Avett Broth­ers with­out talk­ing about their past. Much of their ap­peal comes from their roots in a kind of rus­tic, “au­then­tic” Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence that’s taken on nearmyth­i­cal res­o­nance with the al­ter­na­tive coun­try and so-called “beard-rock” com­mu­ni­ties.

Many of the broth­ers’ songs are played on acous­tic in­stru­ments, and they chan­nel brood­ing Texas trou­ba­dour Townes Van Zandt and old-school Tar Heels Doc Wat­son and Char­lie Poole. Their lyrics of­ten as­sert old-fash­ioned val­ues of fam­ily and tra­di­tion.

When writ­ers con­tem­plate the Avett Broth­ers they of­ten men­tion the mu­sic’s hon­esty, its lack of ar­ti­fice and a throw­back style that re­calls the Band. So it’s star­tling to hear Scott talk about the group’s ori­gins in 2001, when he and brother Seth were plan­ning a busk­ing tour and look­ing for di­rec­tion.

“We were just to­tally into hard rock then – we were in a skate-punk scene,” he says. “I wanted some­thing ironic. And when I started play­ing street cor­ners, I could hear this thing just project. We went all over the coun­try, all the way to San Fran­cisco and Seat­tle, and that banjo just projects down the street!”

As kids in Con­cord, North Carolina, Scott and Seth Avett picked up some of their par­ents’ love of coun­try mu­sic, but just barely. “Grow­ing up, we were much more into 1980s punk rock and Bri­tish pop – we draw from that so much,” Scott says. “We don’t feel any loy­alty to any par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ment or type of mu­sic or nostal­gia.

“We were deeply af­fected by our dis­cov­ery of prim­i­tive or old-time mu­sic that just knocked us out of our socks.” But that took place when the broth­ers were in their 20s.

Dolph Ram­seur, a fel­low North Carolinian then run­ning a small la­bel, re­mem­bers see­ing the group about a year af­ter their busk­ing tour. He was struck by the way Scott played the banjo less like Earl Scruggs and more like a rhythm gui­tarist or even Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bun­ny­men.

“They were not the great­est singers or pick­ers,” he re­calls. “This is a state with a lot of great mu­si­cians. But I could tell right then and there that there was some­thing spe­cial: When I got home and my wife asked me, I couldn’t de­scribe what kind of band I had just wit­nessed.” He signed them to Ram­seur Records and be­came the group’s man­ager.

Things have come a long way since then. The Avetts – who are typ­i­cally aug­mented by dou­ble bassist Bob Craw­ford and on tour, cel­list Joe Kwon – have been rid­ing a surge of in­ter­est since their 2007 al­bum Emo­tion­al­ism broke them out of the twangy pack.

One of the peo­ple im­pressed with the record was Rick Ru­bin, who pro­duced I And Love And You, an al­bum that tem­pered the band’s sound with­out dras­ti­cally al­ter­ing it. The al­bum, re­leased by Sony Mu­sic En­ter­tain­ment, sold well and was hailed as one of 2009’s best. They be­came that rare band that signs with a ma­jor la­bel and gains a more main­stream fol­low­ing with­out alien­at­ing their orig­i­nal au­di­ence.

“We waited longer to sign with a ma­jor la­bel than we could have,” says Scott Avett. “We’d dug in so much, in a solid sense, that if some­one wanted to change us it would have been hard.”

The broth­ers seem just as stub­born to ac­cept pre­con­ceived stylis­tic bound­aries. “I’m more in­ter­ested in song­writ­ing than gen­res,” Scott says, nam­ing idols such as Neil Young, Tom Waits and Faith No More’s Mike Pat­ton. — Los An­ge­les Times/McClatchy-Tribune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices n Avett Broth­ers’ I And Love And You is re­leased by Sony Mu­sic.

Avett Broth­ers are (from left) Scott Avett, Seth Avett and Bob Craw­ford.

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