Reinventing mountain music

The Avett Brothers offer a new twist on country.

Let's first get the whole definition thing out of the way. The Avett Brothers have been issuing albums since '02, but it's this year's Emotionalism that has the masses talking. The issue of what to call their brand of acoustic music has taken on new importance as more fans grapple with explaining the trio's appeal to prospective listeners. Emotionalism reached No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.

"I don't mind folk-rock at all," says singer/banjoist Scott Avett. "Indie folk is a valid term. Rock or country. I wouldn't have a problem with people saying we play really good country music. In fact, I'd be flattered. Acoustic rock works.

"I think it comes down to songs," he continues. "There are songs that we play that could fall into different categories, and that's going to continue to happen. ... I mean, it's kinda weird to say The Beatles were a rock band — not all their songs rocked. Look at Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. They did country, gospel and old-timey music. I don't know. It's not an annoying [question] — just one that has a lot of answers."

Emotionalism has a bluegrass feel, courtesy of Scott's banjo picking. But the lyrics have a decidedly modern confessional bent.

"I'd like to say I'm a faithful man," Scott sings. "But it might not be true."

That line's on "Pretty Girl from Chile." It starts as a typical Avett Brothers number: Scott's delicate banjo, wispy acoustic guitar from younger brother Seth Avett, steady standup bass line by Bob Crawford. The tune picks up speed, the two brothers offering loose harmonies on the chorus. And then comes the surprise ending — fiery grunge complete with noisy electric guitar exploits.

On balance, though, Emotionalism is a mellow affair. I reviewed the disc in May and griped that it dragged at times. While I appreciated its poignancy, I complained that the album's mopey nature meant it didn't hold up well to repeated listens.

I stand by that. But watching the band perform live on YouTube changed my opinion of them. Whereas the Avett Brothers' studio releases tend to be pensive and slow, on stage these guys brim with enthusiasm. They offer the kind of high-energy experience you'd expect from a rock 'n' roll or punk act. The indie aloofness disappears. I mention to Scott that the songs on Emotionalism are a lot more subdued on record than how they're presented in concert.

"Yeah, it's something we can't help or control," he says. "Obviously it's a more subdued atmosphere in the studio. It's never been in our nature to not do what's natural or real.

"Part of it is to embrace the entertainment aspect [of being on stage], and with recording that's not a reality," Scott continues. "To get what happens live [in a] recording takes a bit of abandoning the needs that go with recording. With Emotionalism, we used more instruments, more people were involved, to get something different than what we do live.

"Live, there's that adrenaline rush of being with actual people, people that push us, or maybe it's just the feel of the room or the festival. All those variables cause us to react differently."

Perhaps the best example of the Avett Brothers' duality with regard to studio and stage is illustrated in the song "Shame." It's a plea to win back the woman that got away. The banjo playing lopes along, and the sounds of cello and churchy organ underscore the sorrow of the lyric.

"Shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same," goes the chorus. "Blame, please lift it off, please take it off, please make it stop."

Watching the band perform the song live (the clip can be found on YouTube; it's the one that starts with the ironing anecdote), I was pleasantly surprised by how the trio captured the pathos of the song and then on the last verse delivered a feverish blowout only hinted at on the record. It amounted to a joyous type of catharsis, leaving a listener craving more. Seth jumps up and down as he joins big brother on vocals for the final chorus. It's as if the siblings are suddenly channeling Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." It's a rock 'n' roll moment of the highest order.

"Sometimes you feed off what the song was written about, sometimes off of one person in the crowd that's really into it," Scott explains. "Then again, sometimes it's just the melody. ... It's not always celebratory, sometimes it's just something to react to, art in the form of entertainment. That's what it's about."

Is Scott comfortable in the role as entertainer?

"No doubt," the 31-year-old says. "If I'm looking at entertainment as an art instead of a reaction to emotion, there's no shame in it. Music was put on earth to do live. If Kurt Cobain had lived longer, at some point he would have had to embrace that: He was an entertainer.

"We have a choice as artists," he continues. "Once you take pride in being an entertainer, that opens yourself to that freedom. It's the key into that idea. That's living the dream."

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