It all does, indeed, make for “a lot of living.” A lot of questioning. And self-reflection. And growth – or attempted growth. Which has been taking place in a weird crucible in which they have to reconcile their oddly conflicting status as darlings of the rising Americana music genre and supposed kin to fellow banjo-wielding bands Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, derided by some critics as flavor-of-the-month pretenders to a legacy they shouldn’t claim (and even more oddly, don’t).
The fact that all three bands were nominated for Best Americana Album Grammys this year – and that the Mumfords’ Babel won Album of the Year, the top award – makes one wonder if the backlash has more to do with popularity than quality (or, as detractors accuse, lack thereof). Just two years ago, when The Avetts delivered “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise” on the 2011 Grammy Awards telecast, then performed “Maggie’s Farm” with the Mumfords and Bob Dylan, they earned one of the biggest post-Grammy Awards sales bumps in the broadcast’s history. And they weren’t even nominated.
That year, The Avetts did beat out Mumford, The Civil Wars and Robert Plant and his Band of Joy for their third Americana Honors & Awards win as Duo/Group of the Year; they hold the record as the category’s most nominated act (and are among the most-nominated acts in the Americana awards’ 12-year existence, according to Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly). The Avetts won the inaugural Duo/Group award in 2007, a year in which they also earned nominations for New/Emerging Artist and Album of the Year (for Emotionalism, the album that caused Rubin to seek them out and sign them to his American Recordings label, part of Universal Music’s Republic Records). Nominated again in 2008, they scored their second win in 2010 (the title track from their album I And Love And You was up for Song of the Year as well). Their parents, Jim and Susie, sat in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, beaming with pride as their boys talked about how, as kids, they watched their heroes win awards. I And Love And You went on to top many critics’ 2010 Album of the Year lists.
But Scott and Seth Avett didn’t set out to become Americana’s poster boys any more than they set out to fall in among its whipping boys. They simply fused their acoustic explorations with their rock foundations, resulting in performances that crackle with electric, punk-inspired energy. The band – also touring cellist Joe Kwon and drummer Mike Marsh – get so pumped up onstage, they literally do calisthenics, along with some close-to-Appalachian footstomping (“We’ve got Tae Bo going up there,” Seth jokes). During their sunset slot on a mainstage at 2012’s Austin City Limits Festival, the band carried on with such exuberance, they likely sweated off several pounds – and shouted so mightily, it seemed as if they were headed toward permanent vocal cord damage. It’s performance as therapy, primal scream-style.
Yet somehow, they always manage to deliver the sweet, sometimes off-kilter harmonies that, along with their gift for writing beautiful melodies and intense, full-frontal lyrics, set them apart from those other banjo-strumming bands. Plus, the siblings generally don’t wear suspenders, bowler hats or bowties, though they do own vests. And cycle through facial hair phases too frequently to keep track. They also pull out surprises, such as inviting Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith to join them on the ACL Fest stage. He also contributed to Magpie, as did G. Love on harmonica, Tania Elizabeth (the Duhks, Mary Gauthier) on fiddle and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on organ, among others.