Like it or not, old-school fans of the Avett Brothers have been forced to learn how to share. The Concord, N.C.-bred darlings of the indie-acoustic scene have crossed oceans since the days of sweaty sing-alongs at the Music Farm, growing into an act worthy of headlining Bonnaroo. Sunday marks their biggest-ever show in the Lowcountry as they try on the expansive walls of the North Charleston Coliseum.
“We certainly have learned how to manage a room that size,” says Scott Avett, half of the two-brother duo making up the touring quintet’s namesake. “When we went into them [coliseums], we were nervous, and we just did it. We put a toe in and felt the water, then we put a foot in and just jumped in and went with it. It’s been a revealing progression in that way, out in the open.”
The Avetts took their first big leap into stadium territory when they played Charlotte’s Bojangles Coliseum in August 2009, sonically preserved in a subsequent album/DVD set, Live, Volume 3. That show came soon after the release of I and Love and You, a Rick Rubin-produced disc that essentially served as their debut to the world outside of folk circles and the college circuit.
Almost three years since that album, they’re poised to release a follow-up this summer, again calling on Rubin for production duties. “We’ve got several mixes we’ve been sending back and forth with Rick,” Avett says. “We’re ultimately about 95 percent finished with the process.”
The band recently made an appearance on CMT: Unplugged followed by a performance at the country network’s Artist of the Year Awards. Some fans might justifiably wonder if the Avetts are pulling a Darius Rucker, preparing to don cowboy hats and make a push toward the lucrative country radio market.
“We do think that country music, as a label, should cover more sounds than it does,” Avett says. “It seems like that label has been zoned in on something that’s radio made. It doesn’t feel fair to the rest of the musicians out there that truly are country-inspired. ‘Country’ is a big word, and the sounds underneath it seem like they should be much broader and diverse than they are.”
According to Avett, playing for CMT was an opportunity to walk that walk, performing their raw, energetic music in front of an audience of award recipients that included slick acts like Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift. Still, the band themselves weren’t aiming for “country” when they went into the studio with Rubin.
“We try to change as naturally as we should, but we’ve grown slowly and haven’t tried to hop into any category,” Avett attests. “Anybody can market whatever song they want to, after the fact. As long as we’re not thinking about marketing when we’re making the song, then we can be behind whatever we do. If you do that [focus on marketing], then it’s dead on arrival.”
Avett says the band’s decision to work with Rubin on another album was due in part to his shared philosophy that the business side of music “should have nothing to do with the studio and artistic side.”
“The musical side has got to be leading the charge,” Avett says. “We have to just make what we make and stay true to that natural change. If somebody wants to market that to a certain radio format or genre, then so be it.”
Despite having jumped from the homegrown Ramseur Records to Sony for I and Love and You, the Avetts’ management remains a family operation, so it’s unlikely a song would get pitched to mainstream country radio without their approval. Since forming in 2000, the band has recorded six LPs and four EPs, most falling under the label of their long-time advocate, Dolphus Ramseur, who still handles managerial tasks.
Keeping their friends close plays into how the band deals with fame and growth. Avett, a married father of two, still finds time to follow his passion of painting while constantly working to improve his musicianship. “I do work really hard not to think about how good I am at anything,” he says. “I try harder to think about how bad I am at things, because that’s the reminder that I’m trying to fix something that will never be fixed, but I’m obligated to always attempt to fix it. I’m my best critic.”
Avett’s words paint an interesting portrait of a man who unquestionably bares his soul as a songwriter and live performer, inviting both critical analysis and unbridled adoration beyond what he may have ever expected.
“If I’m driving the car, I need to be thinking about driving the best I can,” he says. “I’m just trying to do something better, and trying to resist those negative things that I’m so filled with. Really, I’m more than well aware of the talents that I lack. Ultimately, I think I’m looking for a very simple truth and a very simple answer.”
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