Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 5: The Avett Brothers
take on Jason Molina, Jim Croce, Paul Simon, Elliott Smith & more!
For the first four volumes of our Vacation Coverfolk series, we pulled from the archives to bring you features on the songs and coverage of Elizabeth Cotten, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Doc Watson, and a mixtape of coverfolk songs with Carolina in the title.
Today, we turn to a new subject: Concord, North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers, whose rise to fame over the past decade has represented a coalescing of neo-traditional elements from the region and beyond. Read on for a look at one of the newest bands to pay tribute to the past and present of the great state in sound and sentiment, plus a full set of covers that speaks soundly to their history and inspiration.
Early harbingers of the same modern tendency towards mixing tradfolk elements into acoustic singer-songwriter almost-rock that brought a Grammy to British-Americana band Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers – currently a five-piece formed around banjo-wielding elder brother Scott, guitar-picking younger brother Seth, and their constant third man, bass player Bob Crawford – have risen through the ranks of the indiefolk world by making intimate, self-effacing music that tears into the soul. Honest hipsters who enact the tensions between the cultural expectations of strong, silent masculinity and the deep urge to feel, their appropriately broad songbook ranges from ballads to full-blown raucous romps, each one a tip of the hat to the myriad of guises and gazes that modern men must straddle to remain whole.
Which is a big part of why fans of their more acoustic sound, with its obvious bluegrass, country, Americana and folk elements, are often startled to find that the brothers, who have been playing together since childhood, got their start in “thrashing” rock bands, which merged in the late nineties when Seth was in high school and Scott was in college, and released three albums together under the name Nemo before breaking up to pursue more traditional American musical forms, allowing what had started as a back-porch side project exploring the potential in acoustic music to become their primary outlet.
The deconstruction reveals roots that reflect their Piedmont origins, with the exploratory paths and soundscapes of hybridized forebears from proto-country banjoist Charlie Poole to early bluesman Blind Boy Fuller echoing throughout, though their own admitted influences run wider still – incorporating, as one 2007 critic put it, “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” And although their subsequent rise to fame has seen them shift back and forth from subtle folk-Americana to a more country rock sound, and from rougher, homespun acoustic studio origins to a recorded and highly produced modality more recently refined by inimitable producer Rick Rubin and distributed by in-house kingmaker Starbucks, their common narrative themes, and their preference for the organic, collaborative one-mic performance that supports their grounded and well-populated narratives, have been strong threads throughout a still-growing career.
In the studio, The Avett Brothers reserve their time for sensitive originals – seven albums, four EPs, and twelve years past their 2000 EP debut, not a single cover appears in their major studio release catalog. But the North Carolina natives appreciate good coverage, and clearly recognize its value as a driver of attention and affection in the post-millennial world of viral pass-along; as a promotion for their last album The Carpenter, they asked fans to take on single Live And Die via YouTube, and the result was exactly as one might expect: a series of amateur takes on the song which contained several nice interpretations and a glut of also-rans which took fairly straightforward shots at what turned out to be an almost prototypical track from the brother-led band.
More significantly, at least for our own purposes today, The Avett Brothers’ coverage of the songs of others is both legendary and equally diverse, transcending their songbook. A survey of YouTube reveals hundreds of wryly and well-chosen full-band and solo takes from radio stations, home studios, and live shows, including a large collection of tender solo living room and green room covers from Seth and Scott paying tribute to a broad set of influences – from country classics to rock and Americana standards to touching songs written and originally performed by their peers in and beyond the indiefolk borderlands.
Stripping these songs from their visual component flattens them out a bit, so in addition to a small set of too-good-to-resist favorites, we’ve included a “selected best” playlist as well, with HUGE thanks to visual artist Mike Beyer, aka Crackerfarm, who has been photographing and videorecording Avett Brothers coverage backstage, on stage, and in small on-site sessions since at least 2007; it is Crackerfarm who provides the vast bulk of our live coverage today, and there’s scores more covers and originals where that came from over at the Crackerfarm YouTube page. Also well worth sharing: The Avett’s contribution to the 2010 Starbucks Valentine compilation, a track or two from the Avett’s earliest live album, The Avett Brothers covering Dylan on Jimmy Fallon, the boys taking on a John Prine cover for 2010 tribute Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, and Scott & Seth’s appearance as both producers and sidemen on folk-hopster G Love’s 2011 release Fixin’ To Die that boils both an old Paul Simon talkie and a Velvet Underground classic into ragged Americana glory.
- The Avett Brothers: In The Aeroplane Under The Sea (orig. Neutral Milk Hotel) 
- G. Love & The Avett Brothers: 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (orig. Paul Simon) 
- G. Love & The Avett Brothers: Pale Blue Eyes (orig. Velvet Underground) 
- The Avett Brothers: I’ll Fly Away (trad.) 
- The Avett Brothers: Will The Circle Be Unbroken (trad.) 
Stay tuned for a weekend feature on James Taylor, who – like us – moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina and back again…followed by a return home, and a feature on new and impending EP-length coverage sure to knock your proverbial socks off!