The Avett Brothers – Blast from the grass
One year, just before the International Bluegrass Music Association left Louisville’s Galt House hotel complex for Nashville, the Avett Brothers were invited to join the festivities. “For three or four days the hotel is bluegrass central,” remembers bassist Bob Crawford. “It’s really fun, just a big party. So one day we decided to set up in the lobby, and of course we had the kick-drum and the high-hat. Four or five hours later we were on an elevator, and a big burly guy — about 45 or 50 years old — with his petite wife says, ‘I saw you guys out there. I thought it was disgusting.’ So he and his wife get off the elevator, and a 14-year-old girl gets on, and she’s like, ‘God, I saw you guys and it was awesome!'”
“I wish I had a really cool-sounding word to describe what we do, but I don’t,” says banjo player Scott Avett, the trio’s 29-year-old co-founder. “I don’t think we ever thought about having an original style. When we first started playing old-time songs, we thought we were doing them just like everyone else who was playing them. But we had a hard time doing that, because we’re not as good as most bluegrass pickers. And besides, we’re more interested in writing songs than in impressing people with our abilities with our fingers.”
While the North Carolina band’s chosen instruments are as roots-based as instrumentation gets, the Avett Brothers work from a messy palette unconfined by genre. The band’s new disc, Four Thieves Gone (released in February on Ramseur Records), muddies those lines more effectively than anything the group has recorded thus far. Is it country? Bluegrass? Rock? Punk?
However one describes the band — Scott Avett’s 25-year-old brother, Seth, on guitar, and 34-year-old Crawford on upright bass — there’s no denying they come by their style honestly. In fact, the Avett Brothers’ musical beginnings weren’t much different from those of thousands of other young teenagers who started garage bands in the wake of the early ’90s alternative explosion.
“From middle school onwards, we formed rock bands and tried to write songs in a rock setting,” says Seth. “Then, in 2001, when I was 21 and Scott was 25, the last serious rock band we were in — which was called Nemo — broke up. That project was kind of overlapped by what became the Avett Brothers. It was more or less a natural progression for us, because we had grown up in the country — in Concord, North Carolina, about 20 miles north of Charlotte — and our dad always played a lot of old-time country songs, when we were younger. We sort of bucked against the country-type thing for a while, but at some point we started to realize how great a lot of American roots music is.”
Scott Avett picks up the story: “We started playing these old-time songs for the same people we had played for in Nemo — mostly punk-rock crowds, or hardcore, skater-type crowds. And they loved the music. It was amazing how much they really liked us playing these old-time songs. At first it was mostly covers, and it’s almost as if we broke the music down to basics and put it at a level that everyone could relate to. From there, we just kept on with what we were doing. But from the start we wanted to reach the point where we were 100 percent original, as far as songwriting goes. And we’re there now.”
The Avett Brothers could indeed play a four-hour set of original material these days, but the transformation from rock band to roots-rock-bluegrass hybrid involved other steps along the way. First, from a practical standpoint, there was the addition of Crawford, who came on board as a permanent member around the time the Avetts recorded their first album, Country Was, in early 2002. While studying jazz guitar at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Crawford picked up an upright bass and promptly fell in love with the instrument. His audition for the Avett Brothers took place late on a Sunday night in a Media Play parking lot.
“The whole thing probably took 25 minutes, at most,” Crawford recalls. “We just started playing some traditional tunes, things like ‘Going Down The Road Feeling Bad’…some Woody Guthrie songs. It was just real easy, three-chord bluegrass songs, that we were rushing through. But then the last thing we did was an [Avett Brothers] original tune, called ‘Kind Of In Love’. We started playing that, and it had a different chord structure, and a different harmony pattern. I thought I was meeting these guys with the idea of playing in a bluegrass band, but there was something else going on. I was thinking, ‘Hey, there’s more here than meets the eye.'”
The introduction of upright bass strengthened the roots component of the Avett Brothers’ music. A more ephemeral factor in the band’s development, however, was a half-circle turn back to their original rock sound. Supplemented by a kick-drum and a hi-hat — played by Scott and Seth, respectively — the Avett Brothers’ music began taking on some unusual colorations.
“Initially we were just playing old-time country songs — Ramblin’ Jack Elliott songs and Jimmie Rodgers songs, things like that,” Seth says. “But over time more rock ‘n’ roll got thrown into the mix.”
Scott’s approach to playing banjo pushed things in a more aggressive direction as well. “I picked up the banjo just because everyone around me was already playing guitar,” he admits. “I was playing guitar too, but there was always somebody around who was a little better than I was. I don’t mind not being the best, but I also wanted to do something a little different. The banjo was different, and that was really exciting. I started off playing three-finger style, playing all these bluegrass songs. But before long all the rock music I had played before started to bleed into that. Today, I’m just as inclined as a guitar player in a rock band to play power chords, on the banjo. I would say the balance of roots or country music and those aggressive early ’90s bands are the forerunners of what we do.”