Under a scorching glare of stage lights, a band is going nuts. Members toss their instruments across the stage and furiously knock over a small set of kick drums. One guy, overwhelmed, begins to trash his instrument.
It’s a banjo.And the banjo’s abuser is none other than Scott Avett, the brother of guitarist Seth Avett; together, they make up two-thirds of the Concord, N.C.-based trio the Avett Brothers (along with nonsibling bassist Bob Crawford). Banjo or not, though, he’s here to rock.
“You run a serious risk of being [seen as] silly when you destroy a banjo,” Scott admitted during a recent phone interview. “But we’re just doing it. It’s natural.”
A casual listen to an Avett Brothers recording — like their recently released album A Carolina Jubilee (Ramseur Records, 2003), for instance — reveals only their most obvious influences. The instrumentation is strongly traditional, with stand-up bass, banjo and a well-picked guitar taking over many of the leads. The high spirit associated with bluegrass soars through these songs — and a great deal of the reflective soul of old-time country, as well. Listen closer, though — there’s something else at work here.
For one thing, the tunes are arranged like pop numbers, coming off almost like bluegrass covers of late-British-invasion radio hits, new-wave fossils or grunge standards.
Yes, grunge — the Avetts’ off-kilter vocals recall the harmonies of early-to-mid-’90s radio rock.
“I think [the grungy vocals are] one of the things that sets us aside,” agrees Avett, even giving a nod to genre archetype Alice in Chains. “If you’d put [their] vocals over bluegrass or country, it’d probably be kind of the same thing,” he ventures.
The Avett Brothers — with their old-time technique and modern-rock heart — may very well be the next face of traditional music. They’ve been favorably compared to roots-rock trailblazers Uncle Tupelo and the Gourds in the pages of No Depression, a critique Avett finds “flattering and complimentary” — but ultimately misleading.
“I don’t think we sound like Uncle Tupelo,” he says. “I kind of missed a lot of their music, but from what I have heard, they are more of what alt-country is. I don’t think we’re alt-country, but it’s what we get put into.
“Which is OK … because you’ve got to go somewhere.
“You know,” he adds, “when grunge came along, it wasn’t metal and it wasn’t punk. It was something in the middle that was just right. It was perfect. I’m hoping that someone would come up with a name [for] what [our music] is.”
How about “grungegrass?” (Mine.) Or “porch ‘n’ roll?” (Theirs.)
Whatever you call it, the band has resonated with fans across the East Coast and Midwest. The brothers, it should be pointed out, “grew up surrounded by gospel music and old country,” says Avett. “My dad played it to us. He was in bands, but it was all country. Growing up, it was always there and accessible. But you know, when you’re younger, you don’t want to be country, so we really just ignored it or neglected it.”
Their first act of rebellion was a band called Nemo, a metal-and-punk-influenced group that Avett allows was the kind of band “punk rockers would say is not punk.”
One time — just for kicks — Nemo played a few rounds of old-time acoustic songs juiced through the power of their electric set.
“We would kind of work things off of our rock show,” he explains. “It was called Back Porch Project, or Nemo Backporch. People took to it so much better — even the punk-rock kids and the skaters and the metal kids we were playing for. They ate it up. We started realizing that it was a little more liked than Nemo was.
“We played more and more, and our audience grew demographically,” he says. “We went from playing to 15- to 25-year-old white males to 4- to 90-year-olds. It got across to so many more people, and all it was, really, was just a change in instrumentation.”
In time, their sound would mellow further still, bringing to light the brothers’ excellent songwriting skills, a sometimes-stunning combination of heartfelt lyrics and compelling melodies.
Live, though, the Avetts are still known to expose their harder edges.
“There are times that our show goes all-out,” concedes the banjo player. “We may trash our equipment. We may throw an instrument or kick the drum over. I think that’s what makes younger people pay attention.
“I think,” he admits, “if we didn’t do that, [we] would run the risk of just being another country-alternative band.”
This story was originally published in the September 17, 2003 issue of Mountain Xpress.