Interview: Bob Crawford
After the late September release of I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers performed on Late Night With David Letterman, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The album was prominently displayed in every Starbucks store in the country.
It was not always thus. They play on stages now that are larger than many of the venues they once played (e.g., The Purple Fiddle in West Virginia, which is mentioned in the interview).
I first encountered The Avett Brothers entirely by accident in January 2004 when they were the third of three unfamiliar bands billed as up-and-coming country-bluegrass artists in Annapolis. It was a very small crowd.
The first two bands were pretty straightforward bluegrass, but these North Carolina boys were something different altogether. The guy in the middle was stomping a kick drum and flailing away at the banjo like it was an electric guitar; the guy on the left was handling a stand-up bass. Meanwhile, the guy on the right with the guitar and the high-hat was hollerin' and screamin' and foot-stomping so hard I thought he was going to stomp right through the floorboards. Banjo and guitar strings were busted on just about every song and traded in for a new banjo or guitar with the old one being visibly repaired just off stage. But just when the banjo and guitar player seemed like they were going to be out of control, they would reel it all in with beautiful brotherly harmonies. I soon learned that the banjo player in the middle was Scott Avett, the guitarist on the right was his younger brother Seth, and the bassist was Bob Crawford.
My wife and I looked at each other with jaw-dropping disbelief. Who are these guys and what is this stuff? It was entirely acoustic, while being loud and a little bit crazy. There were more "pretty girl" songs than one, a murder ballad, travelin' and ramblin' songs, so all the familiar trappings of country and bluegrass were there, but it wasn't any sort of bluegrass or country music my wife and I were familiar with. It was certainly more fun than any adult should be allowed to have. I immediately bought Carolina Jubilee and was hooked.
When friends would ask me to explain their music I reached for the "punk-bluegrass" label that seemed to be floating around. But that didn't work because bluegrass folks wouldn't recognize it as bluegrass and punkers wouldn't recognize it as punk rock and anyone who doesn't like either just thinks you're crazy.
Someone once said that The Avett Brothers were to bluegrass what the Hansen brothers were to hockey in the movie Slap Shot. But not exactly, because behind the onstage mania it was clear that these guys weren't your everyday head-banging bluegrass punk rockers. They had something to say. And they could write.
I particularly recall Seth Avett saying toward the end of that show back in 2004 that "if you want to know about where we're coming from and what we are all about this song pretty much sums it up." And they launched into "The Salvation Song," an anthem of sorts that also laid down a public marker and commitment:
We came for salvation
We came for family
We came for all that's good that's how we'll walk away
We came to break the bad
We came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way .
And they may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth then we will go
This wasn't bubble-gum, big cowboy hat, country schlock either. These guys seemed to be the real deal, and every chance I've had to talk with them over the past several years has done nothing but confirm that first impression. I should also add that my wife got hooked and all my kids got hooked, and boat loads of their friends as well. We're not alone. We've become part of a large and fiercely loyal "fan base." But now the band is really famous.
After six studio albums (along with two EPs, Gleam I and Gleam II) with the North Carolina indie label Ramseur Records, I and Love and You is their first on a major record label (Columbia/American). The album was produced by Rick Rubin, who almost single-handedly revived the career of Johnny Cash in the mid-1990s. Their music is clearly developing and, I think it is fair to say, maturing: less banjo, more keyboards, the introduction of a drum set, and (horrors to a few) they've gone (partially) electric. They've added Joe Kwon, a classically trained cellist, to the band. Although I think it was inevitable, not everyone is happy with their less rootsy development. But you simply can't listen to I and Love and You without the sense that their personal and musical integrity is intact. In fact, much of the record is a confession of their own struggles with fame. Check out "Ill with Want," for instance, or "The Perfect Space," which is a crie de coeur of sorts: "I want to have friends that I can trust / Who love me for the man I've become not the man that I was."