This is an extended version of an article that appears in this week’s Columbia Free Times. The Avett Brothers are one of the headliners for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Five Points.
When it comes to making music, it’s a family affair for the Avett Brothers even if you’re not actually blood kin, says their bassist Bob Crawford.
“It has been six and a half years now that we’ve been playing together and I couldn’t feel more related,” He says, “from their parents down to the whole Avett family. It was just the three of us for a while, but now that we’ve added a road manager, a sound man, and a cello player, I’ve seen that the way I was welcomed into the clan is the way all of us have been treated. It always has been a very tightly knit family.”
Over those six-plus years, the Avett Brothers have produced a string of recordings that combine old-time music,bluegrass, country, and folk in ways only a group that started out as a high school rock band could imagine. Their raucous live shows are attended by a rabid fan base who sing along to every song, and 2007’s Emotionalism garnered enough positive press to land on a number of critic’s year-end top ten lists. With all this attention and a grassroots groundswell of popularity, it’s interesting to note that the group has issued all but their first couple of self-produced CDs on their manager’s label, Ramseur Records.
“We did the first two ourselves, and when things began to grow, Dolph (Ramseur) was just a guy who had another job, saw us play, liked it, and thought he could help,” Crawford says. “He has worked so hard for us, I think if he had to put on a sandwich board and walk the streets to get people to come see us play, he would. If you play in a band, you’re always meeting people who say they can do stuff for you, but we gave him the chance and he’s come through for us.”
The band’s status as the flagship act of a label with them as the only client doesn’t mean that they are not open to some other arrangement, however.
“We’re not elitist, indie-music snobs,” Crawford says. “We’re not anti-major label. Dolph is our manager and our label, and that’s worked for us so far. If we move to a bigger label he’ll still be with us in his role as our manager, we just haven’t found the right fit yet–we’ve been very cautious about making that move. With the bigger labels, a lot of it is living up to their expectations, and what you can put into it yourselves.”
Just like any band who stays together for more than a few years, the Avett Brothers sound has evolved, from a rangy, raw punk-grass to a more refined yet still sometimes wildly energetic melodicism.
“I think we have been changing gradually all along,” Crawford says, “Even since the last album, we have demoed about 60 more songs in the past six months. As you learn, you use the studio better, play your instrument better, write better songs. We probably feel the musical changes more than others, we’re hearing new textures, new sounds, but there is still an underlying current that has remained constant.”
The Avetts have cross-genre appeal, having played the big folk and bluegrass festivals like Merlefest, plenty of rock ‘n’ roll venues around the country, and now they’re even scheduled to play the Grand Old Opry in April.
“We have a long history with Nashville,” Crawford says, “We have been playing there since we started, making 30 bucks a trip. We got our publishing deal and our booking agent in Nashville, too.
As for that crossover appeal, Crawford agrees that the band covers a lot of ground in their music.
“Whatever it is that we do, there are points in it where we touch certain things. we started out playing Tom T. Hall and Ramblin Jack Elliot songs, so the country music thing isn’t really new to us. We played the Americana music awards last year ( and they won two awards themselves) at the Ryman Auditorium, and to be on that stage where the Opry began, that’s the real deal.”
Despite their prolific recorded output, the Avetts have always gained the best notices for their live performances, and Crawford acknowledges that there are differences between the two.
“We used to try to capture the live thing on a recording but were always frustrated because it didn’t come across well,” He says. “Radio stations wouldn’t like the album enough to play it, but they’d come see us live and love it. we’ve always had trouble with the transition. On Emotionalism we worked with Bill Reynolds (Blue Rags, Band of Horses), and it was the first time I saw Scott and Seth give a little control back, listening to someone else. with Danny and Bill’s help, we formed a new team. They set us up like we were playing live for the basic tracks, then we added stuff to that. We went for different textures, different sounds, and brought in pedal steel, fiddle, and cello. We began to think more from the angle of what worked in the studio. I can only imagine with this new awareness what the next album will be like.” Crawford doesn’t see an end to the disparity between the live show and the albums, however, and that’s okay with him as the group continues to explore new directions in their own methodical, gradual way.
“The recorded and live work may diverge a bit,” He says, ”We’ve added a drum kit, which Seth and Scott alternate playing, and Joe is with us full time on cello. We’ll be addding a keyboard player soon, too.” Chances are pretty good that they’ll be welcomed into the growing extended Avett clan just as warmly as their musical brethren already in the band.