Music: Brothers in Arms (and Legs)

The Avett Brothers take their biggest album on tour while working toward their next

May 15, 2008 at 2:06 pm

The Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers are pathologically busy. The trio — banjoist/vocalist Scott, his guitarist/vocalist brother Seth and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford — has enjoyed its most rewarding period since the band officially began seven years ago. In 2007, the Avetts sold more albums, logged more road time and scored more industry accolades than ever before.

Last year, the Avetts finished their 10th release, Emotionalism. In the midst of a grueling trek that found them road-bound nearly two-thirds of the year, they took time off last November to collect a pair of Americana Music Association awards for Best Duo/Group and Best New/Emerging Artist.

"You can't help but be surprised when there's some sort of validation for something you've been trying to convince so many people of anyway," Scott Avett says of the accolades. "You take the time to be rewarded and pat everybody on the back and then move on to the next thing."

As the Avetts ready their new album — The Second Gleam, out in July — it's hard not to reflect on Emotionalism, the band's biggest critical and commercial success to date. Emotionalism debuted at No.1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart, and interest has remained consistently high ever since.

"It's been better than any other record we've put out," Avett says.

"It's sold more copies, it's given us more opportunities to play before people who are familiar with the album — the distribution and the coverage on it was a step up."

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that the Avett Brothers have garnered so much attention is they represent new ways of thinking about old-time Bluegrass music. The Avetts bring a 21st-century mindset to a genre rooted before the beginning of the last century, and their fresh approach has captured the imagination of fans and critics alike. Avett sees parallels between the advances made by older, more accomplished peers and the Avetts' Bluegrass attempts.

"Tom Waits was doing it with Blues and Jazz and Bob Dylan was doing it with Folk and Country, and we're doing it with some of those things as well, but we have a lot more to work with since those guys," Avett says. "Punk Rock and Heavy Metal and Hip Hop have lived to their fullest. There's so many new things to pull from, it's almost like a reassessment of that, and we're not the only ones doing this."

The Avetts' experience with other forms of musical expression is not merely theoretical. Both Scott and Seth did stints with Alternative Rock bands in their Concord, N.C., hometown, eventually expanding to Charlotte and Greenville. After playing separately, the siblings joined forces in the heavy Rock outfit Nemo, which gained a decent regional following.

As internal pressures mounted, the Avetts let off steam in an acoustic setting alternately known as the Back Porch Project or Nemo Downstairs. In 2000, the Avetts and Nemo guitarist John Twomey became the Avett Brothers and self-released their debut EP. In 2001, Nemo broke up, Twomey departed and Crawford arrived. With the acoustic trio finding a larger, more loyal audience than any of their Rock predecessors, the Avetts stuck with the acoustic format, releasing their first full-length, 2002's Carolina Was.

"We never were Bluegrass musicians, had no business saying we were and we never did. It just so happened we started with banjo and guitar," Avett says. "We started from the bottom and we've been building slowly since then."

After releasing Live at the Double Door Inn, the trio was approached by Dolph Ramseur, the independent owner of a small label. Taking a chance, the Avetts signed up, getting help with the distribution of 2003's A Carolina Jubilee and releasing the Swept Away EP and the semi-conceptual Mignonette full-length on Ramseur Records in 2004.

"Whatever choices we make, we always make conscious decisions on what's best for the art," Avett says. "There's a lot of ways to market yourself and we can all find ways to make money. I don't need to be rich. As long as my bills are paid and I can feed my family, everything's fine. As far as the records and what needs to happen for the next step, as long as we're progressing, that's the right decision."

The Avetts dropped their second self-released live album in 2005, quickly followed by Four Thieves Gone — crafted during an eleven-day hibernation in a remote cabin — which became their most acclaimed record to that point. The Avetts then tried some different approaches with their next album. Breaking with their previous methodology, the trio held back at least half of the songs they'd written for Emotionalism from their live set.

"We didn't want to get bored with it, and we also wanted it to be a surprise," Avett says. "These days, if you play it live, it's on YouTube, it's recorded on all kinds of recording systems, it's over the top. It's a positive thing, but we're trying to work it into a positive for us and for our fans."

One of the biggest components in the Avetts' rise has been their ongoing road commitment — they spread their gospel the old-fashioned way, one audience at a time. Even as their re-energized old-time sound finds new fans via their newfangled Web site (, Avett realizes that taking their music directly to listeners is the surest method of exposing their sound.

"When you go on trips, you always come home feeling experienced and you have stories to tell and there's things to talk about and remember and it really does stimulate every part of your life," he says. "We're constantly being energized by that and it helps. You realize you're growing older a lot slower because of it. It really keeps you alive. We've grown very accustomed to it and we feel very natural on the road."

THE AVETT BROTHERS play the Southgate House Friday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.