Screw the Genre

The Avett Brothers play the music they want to play

Musicians have a tendency toward pessimism.

Never finding a sustainable fan base. Releasing an album that no one hears--or gets bashed by the press and public alike. These are fears that most all musicians face, including Scott Avett.

"I don't think you have any confidence when you're making an album. It's really hard to gauge if this is something somebody will like," he says. "No matter how many times I've done it so far, I never think that it's a given. I always question if people are going to miss the point."

The Avett Brothers don't have much to worry about. The trio, comprised of Scott (vocals and banjo), brother Seth Avett (vocals and guitar) and Bob Crawford (vocals and upright bass), is kicking off a two-month tour in Arizona this week. Meanwhile, the band has more than 30 songs already written for a future release, and they're still wooing new fans with their latest album, 2007's Emotionalism. Add in a well-earned reputation for kick-ass live shows, it's fairly safe to say the Avett Brothers are sitting pretty right now.

The group is often lumped into one or more of the multiple genres that critics have invented to describe bluegrass spin-offs--newgrass, jamgrass, grungegrass, etc. In reality, the trio simply bangs out crisp songs that highlight fine guitar and banjo work, blue-collar lyrics and an appreciation for all types of rock 'n' roll. Labeling them seems patronizing.

Scott jokes that Emotionalism was the group's sixth "official" album release, with three "unofficial" releases floating around (though numerous other recordings are likely out there, too). Up next: Those 30-odd demos will be pared down for a planned for a fall release.

On Emotionalism, rowdy songs coexist with somber acoustic tunes, yet the album melds together into a coherent listening experience.

"Whatever the song calls for is what we're going to go for. That freedom is just clear, and it's living at its fullest," Scott Avett says. "We like to always think we have one foot in the roots world, and one foot in the rock world."

Scott laughs while stating that he was playing "melodic hardcore" well before the Avett Brothers took off, and he notes he's been in hard-rock bands before, too. He even has a side project with his brother called Oh What a Nightmare, which plays music bringing to mind the style of Helmet and Clutch--fitting, since Scott lists both as huge influences. (Painting is yet another passion of Scott's: He's created all of the Avett Brothers' album covers, except one.)

Scott says that people are often too eager to label music and tinker with classifications.

"Bluegrass is an unbelievable genre, and it's an amazing thing. It doesn't need to get messed with, necessarily; it is what it is," he says. "But its tradition needs to be carried on."

The Avett Brothers are becoming known for one oft-lauded aspect of bluegrass: rambunctious live shows. The trio tours incessantly, and this year will be no exception. The current two-month excursion will have them stopping at some stalwarts of the summer-festival scene--including MerleFest and Bonnaroo--but first, they're returning to the Rialto Theatre. The Avetts rocked the Rialto last August; now, they come with those new songs in tow--and the prospect of playing that new music audibly perks up Scott as he speaks from his home in North Carolina.

"Our lifeline for the band has always been, 'The whole night will be great if we play this song that no one has ever heard before,'" he says. "(New music is) not always the fans' favorite, but it works for us. It's always been our backbone."