Over the past 10 years, the Avett Brothers have grown from obscurity into a family band that's on the tip of the music world's tongue. They've done so with energetic and interesting music that appeals to fans across many genres, if only because the band refuses to settle on any one sound for too long.
Raucous but thoughtful, authoritative but polite, the band freely mixes folk with stylistic elements from rock, country, bluegrass, punk, jazz, poetry and anything else that might suit the mood of each song. But with the recent release of Live: Volume 3, the Avetts aim to show what they're really about.
The band -- brothers Scott and Seth Avett, Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon -- stopped by the CMT offices recently to reflect on many aspects of their music, including the hometown performance that would eventually become their latest album, Live: Volume 3. The one thing they kept coming back to was the desire to be genuine.
"We have a choice in lyrics," Scott explains. "Seth and I both choose to have thoughtful lyrics. We don't have to choose that. I mean, we could choose to have purely celebratory lyrics. And there's definitely a place for that. But ... we want to put thought into all of it.
"Some people just need a jingle behind them, and it really makes no difference what the lyrics say at all," he adds. "And that's fine. There's a place for that. We're just products of our thought, and we just can't help but be as natural as we can."
That tendency has led to some starkly confessional songs, like "Murder in the City," where the brothers openly wonder which one of them their parents liked better. The verse ends with "A tear fell from my father's eyes/I wondered what my dad would say/He said I love you/And I'm proud of you both in so many different ways."
That candor, along with some serious stage presence, can be easily detected on Live: Volume 3.
Recorded at Bojangles Arena, formerly the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C., the show was something of a reunion for the band and its most loyal fans. The Avetts grew up in the Charlotte area and remember attending events there throughout their childhood.
"It's a coliseum," Scott says. "We used to go to and see bands, monster truck events and stuff."
Despite their familiarity with the venue, they had never played in such a large room -- or to such a large crowd -- as headliners.
"We knew we were gonna have some folks recording that night," Scott recalls. "And it's our job ... to kind of put blinders on. We were battling with -- not battling, but enjoying -- the first experience of playing to a very big crowd of a big concert hall, arena-type thing. I mean, it was an 8,000-seater. So there was a vulnerability there that we knew we just couldn't hide from. We really didn't have time to think about that. We had to put on a show for the thousands of people that were there. So I think that was exciting, to try to capture that. Because that vulnerability you just can't pretend. You can't fake being green."
That hint of nervousness comes through early on Volume 3, and the crowd clearly eats it up. On the third track, Seth starts into a tender rendition of "The Ballad of Love and Hate" with 8,000 fans singing each word along with him. Whether he got caught up listening to them sing or something else, he flubs a lyric and loses his place. With the crowd laughing and cheering, you can imagine the smile on everyone's face as he says, "I'm so happy right now, I can barely stand it." It's one of the most endearing moments on the record.
But from that point on, the band is dialed in. Through 16 songs, they sample work from throughout their career to date, from 2002's Country Was ("Pretty Girl From Matthews") all the way up to last year's breakout, the Rick Rubin-produced I and Love and You ("Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" and the title track). In between, the crowd is treated to vibrant renditions of songs like "Shame" (from 2007's Emotionalism), "Talk on Indolence" (2006's Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions) and "When I Drink" (2006's The Gleam).
The tumultuous audience itself is another high point of the album. The Avetts are known for their frenzied performances, and this one is no exception. Feeding off of the twitchy, spasmodic energy of these hometown boys who made good, the crowd is more than enthusiastic as they sing every song and fill every gap with a roaring din of white noise. It's no wonder this show was chosen for the live album, and listening through headphones really does feel like being in the middle of the front row.
Asked how it feels to be so open and connected with an audience, Scott's reply is equally measured and thoughtful.
"Vulnerable or exposed, maybe," he says. "Because you're exposing personal emotions and interactions with people that should be private, really. ... The thing that we've noticed is that most of the personal things that we write about, something similar has happened to a lot of other people. So we've found that even when we write from a very personal level, it can become broad in its translation."
And maybe that paradox is the band's true defining trait so far.
Back in the CMT offices, things are a little quieter. As the interview winds down, the band members talk about believing in what they're doing and where their music is at the moment, but it's clear they have no intention of settling. Beyond genuineness, progression seems to be the only real goal.
Crawford notes, "Scott always says it: 'If we stop growing, we need to quit.' And it's true."
The rest of the band just nods its approval.