Scott Avett turned to the banjo thanks to the inspiration of that legendary picker, Kermit the Frog.
Avett and his brother, Seth, had been in a hard rocking band, Nemo. When it fell apart, they decided to do something different: try acoustic instruments.
“I picked up the banjo because I recalled Kermit the Frog playing it. That was so romantic, so awesome,” he says, chuckling. “There was just such grace about it. There is a lot of irony in the banjo. The irony of it was why I turned to the banjo.”
He figured if he was going to play the banjo — and he wanted to learn enough songs to play a live set with the new band, dubbed The Avett Brothers — that he’d better learn some bluegrass music. He started listening to records by Old and In the Way, the group with Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan and David Grisman. They were not bluegrass pioneers, but a nice balance between old and new that appealed. He also fell in love with a disc by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Derrol Adams as well as dipping into the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
He took lessons from a fellow in North Carolina who taught him the Scruggs style. “I felt like there was some sort of foundation I needed to have before I would be able to validate going on stage with the banjo,” he says. For their first sets out, the Avetts played bluegrass tunes.
That didn’t last long, though. When they started writing songs, the brothers didn’t produce mountain music, but something entirely their own. As Avett says, “When it came to writing and applying the banjo to writing, a different thing was happening.”
And “a different thing” is about as good a description as any of sound produced by The Avett Brothers, who make a return visit to the Attucks Theatre on Friday. The band is Scott on banjo, Seth on acoustic guitar, Bob Crawford, the Yankee in the crew, on upright bass. They play unabashedly emotional, smart, music. At times it’s intense, acoustic instruments driven to the limit. At times, especially on their stellar new release, “Emotionalism,” it’s joyous pop as well as tender and thoughtful. Giving it some sort of tag is ultimately misleading.
Avett calls it pop, then concedes the term is so broad it has little meaning. “What is the common denominator with us and music that we love?” he asks. “It’s not subject matter, it’s not genre, it’s not audience, and it’s not where you fit in the CD rack. It’s emotions. It’s where the music is written with or delivered with emotion.”
The brothers grew up in Concord, N.C. listening to a typically evolving play list. Their mother taught reading and their father was a welder who played country guitar. Scott remembers listening to the family’s eight-track player churning out John Denver, Three Dog Night and Dylan — obscure Dylan, or relatively obscure Dylan like “Desire.” As he got older, he became attached to Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Tom Petty, The Cars. And then it was on to hard rock, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Hendrix and the grunge scene.
One critic may have put it best. He called the Avetts “a band that exploits the tensions between the rustic Old South and the cosmopolitan New South, between rootsy bluegrass and rowdy punk rock, between reverence and irreverence.”
On this day, Avett is driving the band’s 31-foot RV from Salt Lake City to Boise, where they’ll pull up to an RV park and camp tonight before a show tomorrow. Whatever you call their music, it’s catching. “Emotionalism” cracked the Billboard 200 at No. 134. Avett says the momentum has cranked up. They’re finding big audiences on the West Coast — 350 people showed up for their first Los Angeles show — in addition to their East Coast following (they sold out the North Carolina Museum of Art’s amphitheater — 2,700 tickets — earlier this year).
They had four unfinished songs they considered for the disc. Two of them made it, including “Die Die Die,” which is a slice of pure pop out of the Yo la Tengo or Guided by Voices songbook. But these guys don’t stick to one sound for long. “Paranoia in B Major” could have come from The Band. “Living of Love” is as tender a ballad as you’ll find. And “Pretty Girl from Chile,” another in their series of “Pretty Girl” songs, contains a samba interlude.
As we talk, Avett returns to the music. They played in Aspen recently and a drunk in the front kept calling for Scott to fire up some bluegrass on his banjo. After the show, Amos Lee, a friend who was performing, came back stage to talk about the episode.
” I said (to him), ‘It’s so obvious to me all we are is just pop music,’ ” Avett says. “A.banjo is such a good instrument for pop music. But it might be something hard to swallow for some people.”
What he strives for is that dynamic tension between pop and roots, between old and new. “There’s a seriousness you hear in Townes van Zandt . There’s nothing pop about it. To me, that’s the top of the mountain,” he adds. “But there’s a time of relief for us musically live that needs to happen. It’s a release that adds to the dynamic of the show. That’s what we find out of turning to a pop melody. This song is written on a light topic because that’s what we need right now.”
He could leave it there, but he doesn’t. He comes back to the tension, to the desire to cross that boundary. “You don’t always need that, of course,” he adds. “If that’s all you’re living on, it’s a very shallow life.”