If you saw Mitch Collman and Jim Avett together at a concert, you might not look twice: They are two 50-plus fathers, both gregarious, with grown children and graying hair. Collman is a cardiologist; Avett was a welder before he retired. But they share a taste for American roots music and rather nascent interests in the music business, so occasionally they drive to gigs together. They are, simply and plainly, post-middle-age show-going buddies.
But there is a catch: Avett's sons—or, as they have called themselves for the last decade, The Avett Brothers—headline many of the concerts the pair attend. The shows are getting bigger, too: While The Avett Brothers had already outgrown Raleigh's 800-capacity Lincoln Theatre when they played two sold-out shows at the end of 2006, they will celebrate the close of 2012 by headlining the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum. Music mogul Rick Rubin produced the band's latest album, The Carpenter; last week, the record secured a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.
Collman has seen the Avetts more than 20 times. Not only a doctor but also the new owner of Robust Records, Collman remembers one drive to Georgia with Avett in the spring of 2011. Collman had just seen Mipso Trio, a Chapel Hill string band that now goes simply by Mipso. He was impressed.
"Several days later, Jim and I drove to Athens to see an Avett Brothers show," Collman recalls. "I remember telling him how I was smitten by a band I had just seen and I was going to work with them."
Initially, the plan was for Avett to produce Mipso's debut record. But the three UNC undergraduates took their own direction, self-producing their 2012 debut LP, Long, Long Gone. And though Collman started Robust Records after seeking business advice from Dolph Ramseur, the founder and namesake of The Avett Brothers' original label, he wasn't interested in molding Mipso into the junior version of the Concord brothers. They were already a band when he found them, after all, one eager to make music full-time after their May 2013 graduation; if success is in their future, they'd like it on their own terms.
Still, a starry-eyed review of Mipso's sold-out January show at Cat's Cradle by the blog Carolina Gypsy cast Mipso as apparent Avett Brothers inheritors. The blog went so far as to imagine that the backstage silhouettes of Collman and his daughters were those of The Avett Brothers.
"We're three clean-cut white guys. It's easy to make the visual comparison," admits Mipso guitarist Joseph Terrell. He wrote eight of the 13 tracks on Long, Long Gone. But Terrell confesses he has never really listened to The Avett Brothers. Rather, the High Point native grew up on earlier bluegrass and gospel; if anything, the Avetts have helped familiarize larger audiences to the kind of music that's made in North Carolina. But they are not alone.
"In part, we've had a supportive community that's been warmed up to our style of music by the commercial success of the Avetts and Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show," says Mipso mandolin player Jacob Sharp. "But I don't think the Avetts necessarily define that."
Indeed, the Avetts have only helped popularize a fusion of rural folk and roots instrumentation with pop-rock and punk energy. The media doesn't always know how to handle such mixed signals, befuddled by the group's Southern index of rural and urban qualities, a mix indicative of their North Carolina origins. A spring 2011 Garden and Gun feature, for instance, leans heavily on the band's early days in Greenville's raucous, booze-fueled party-show circuit. By contrast, The Avett Brothers' recent episode of CMT's Crossroads, filmed with country star Randy Travis, finds them on their best behavior—talking about God and marriage and making offhand dismissals of their rock years. Press shots feature the band posing with antiques or lounging on hay bales, even as they sell out massive arenas.
Stereotypes make the South digestible; rather quickly, the music of The Avett Brothers is shaping its own stereotype, its own emblem of what the South can sound like. Bands like Mipso are preordained to Avett comparisons—no matter if they like it, no matter if it's warranted, and no matter if it hurts or helps their career.
Indeed, the Avetts' massive success raises questions as to what new local bands, or even bands that came of age alongside the brothers, owe them—and, therefore, how relevant they remain to a vibrant music scene. If the mainstream press doesn't know what to do with the Avetts, how will audiences handle still-newer Southern hybrids? Have they made it easier or harder for young acts to break old molds?
"There's so much traditional music here," offers Andrew Marlin of Carrboro singer-songwriter duo Mandolin Orange, "and there's been so many influential artists from here."
Marlin mentions Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, pointing out that North Carolina's elevated role in roots music—or American music in large—is not a recent phenomenon. His comment also illustrates the obvious: Area Americana acts can trace their lineage far beyond the Concord trio that's helped remind the nation about North Carolina's bluegrass tradition. For instance, Marlin's bandmate, Emily Frantz, grew up playing in traditional bluegrass bands around Chapel Hill as a teen. She sheepishly admits that the Avetts' rise to fame initially annoyed her. "We roll our eyes a little bit, but overall we recognize how huge they've been," she says.
For Mipso, Terrell grew up immersed in rural North Carolina forms; Sharp confesses that the Avetts were the first band he loved as a teenager, but he has since moved past them to explore their folksier roots. Mipso bassist Wood Robinson developed as a jazz musician. "We all bring a very distinct set of influences," he says, "but what all of our influences have in common is that it has some sort of age to it."
What's more, the Avetts have benefited from slowly shifting views of Southern music, coupled with a renewal of interest in it. Chatham County Line's John Teer points to the millennial success of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its country-and-folk soundtrack. The release of the unlikely and inescapable hit "Man of Constant Sorrow" aligned with the short lifespan of the new file-sharing program Napster, pushing the traditional tune to a wide, new audience. The mandolin and fiddle player believes the tune gave bands like his own access to new ears.
"That helped open a lot of doors," says Teer. "It was there at the right time and a lot of people discovered it. And that, I think, was a good help and a push in the right direction."
This Coen Brothers film was not the only factor, but it contributed to a shift in how people approach roots, folk and string bands. Initially, Teer says, he encountered perceptions of North Carolina musicians in line with stereotypical Hee Haw punch lines; those attitudes have softened.
Scorn from roots purists offended by Chatham County Line or the Avetts' nontraditional or rock-born elements could be just as scathing. Teer remembers meeting The Avett Brothers at an International Bluegrass Musicians Association showcase. "They were playing down in the main lobby. Afterward they had gotten on the elevator, and they were in the elevator with this older man who had probably had too much to drink," says Teer. "And Scott Avett said he looked at them and said, 'Y'all are pathetic. You'll never make it.'"
But even in a withering music industry, the Avetts did "make it" through tireless work, constant touring and plenty of empty gigs to headline two nights at Colorado's esteemed Red Rocks Amphitheatre, as they did in June, or back Bob Dylan at the Grammys, as they did in 2011.
Seth Martin plays in Sinful Savage Tigers, a high-energy acoustic trio that's often compared to the Avetts. He saw one of those scantly attended early gigs, when the band played a rainy Thursday night in Tennessee a decade ago to a handful of people at Sewanee. Martin first picked up a banjo and started writing folk and country songs as an undergrad at the Episcopal seminary and liberal arts university. The Avetts' willingness to deliver their characteristic high-octane performances for small handfuls of people endeared them to audiences like the one Martin mentions.
By his reckoning, they've been more helpful than inspirational; their broad appeal has had positive ramifications for string-band music across the board. More venues book it, and the audience has grown. This resonates with the changing perceptions Teer mentions, by which tired Hee Haw clichés are finally retired. Martin is no Avetts cheerleader, but he thinks the groundwork they've helped build for fresh perceptions of new Southern music is undeniable and invaluable.
"Their success has opened up opportunities for a band like mine to play in front of appreciative audiences in venues that would have been difficult to book 15 years ago," Martin says. "Every band that includes a stand-up bass has it a little easier booking shows because of them."
That is, banjos and mandolins are no longer the niche instruments they were, for good or ill.
"This fellow in town, Jerry Brown, once said, 'You can put a banjo in a 40-piece orchestra and people will still call it a folk band," Mandolin Orange's Marlin says. Frantz agrees, saying she's noticed that many bands get classified not by the music they play but by the instruments they bring onstage. "People are still going to ask anybody with a mandolin and a cello to play 'Wagon Wheel,'" Marlin says dryly.
The path before bands like Mipso, then, seems fraught with Avett comparisons. And that's not because of any stylistic similarities, either: Where the Avetts' first seven years or so were marked by rambunctious folk-punk and more than a little melodrama, Mipso is squeaky clean, even on its more mischievous songs. Yet there's an approximate similarity in the instruments both bands play, which is enough to stoke the generalizations.
And even if the Avetts have opened doors for these bands, audiences still must be converted the old-fashioned way. Durham band Bombadil, for instance, shared stages with The Avett Brothers at the start of their career; six years later, they remain on Ramseur Records, the Concord label that launched the Avetts and still manages their career. While Bombadil's early shows were well-attended in part because of Avett crossover interest, Phillips says Bombadil had to win those people's attention on their own merits. Access to interest might be easier, but the fame itself is not transferable. The two bands don't really sound alike, anyway.
"We have certainly benefited from an association with the Avett Brothers," Phillips acknowledges, "but at the end of the day, it's all about what you can do on stage and on record that determines your success as a band."
Dave Wilson, who sings lead and plays guitar in Chatham County Line, echoes Phillips' sentiment.
"Besides having a beard, a banjo, being from N.C., and writing our own material, we really don't have much in common with The Avett Brothers," he says. "When it comes down to it, their success comes from the fact that those are two extremely charismatic dudes that can write music that people relate to. I believe that it took the guise of acoustic instruments to let their charisma shine through."
For Wilson, the Avetts' true contribution is in showing new musicians that passion and enthusiasm can more than make up for technical ability—that is, you don't have to shred like Béla Fleck to be an effective banjo player. The Avetts' cultural impact may end up less like that of criticism-immune originators such as Bill Monroe or Doc Watson and more like crossover rock stars such as The Ramones or Nirvana. Those bands' accessible styles have become nearly universal; similarly, the sound of The Avett Brothers and peers like Mumford & Sons has provided an updated, hybridized perception of folk music and the region that makes it.
Even if these forms originated in part in North Carolina, that doesn't necessarily dictate where they go next. Phillips has lived in Portland, Ore., and Durham, two towns where he says folk music holds significant sway. "It's definitely in vogue at the moment," he says, "and becoming more universal."
Earlier this year, Mipso realized it would benefit from a fourth member. They dropped the "trio" from their name and recruited schoolmate Libby Rodenbough to add fiddle and vocals. She has recorded and gigged with the band, but she's not graduating in May. As Mipso goes full-time in 2013, she won't. Still, Sharp knows the perfect banjo player recruit: "But he's crazy. And he doesn't speak English."
The picker in question is Japanese, a member of a surprisingly healthy bluegrass scene there that dates to the end of World War II. While social media and sites such as YouTube accelerate the spread of newgrass and folk-pop like that of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, Japanese players tend toward a more traditional approach. Most of the country's bluegrass listeners are pickers, too, resulting in a more democratic dynamic. Sharp had no idea this even existed until about a year ago, when he encountered an impressive mandolin in an instrument shop and wondered about its origins in Osaka. Soon he'd gone down the rabbit hole, spending six weeks this past summer in Japan. Some of their players, he says, are becoming among the best in the world.
"It's like having a younger brother, and you went to school for four years and came back and he was a lot better than you were at football or something," says Sharp. "It's like, 'Oh, wow. How did that happen?' Japan was cool because it taught me that although bluegrass isn't traditional to Japan, there is very much a tradition of it there."
That may be the crux of what's happening stateside, too: As regional forms spread and evolve, North Carolina-born hybridizations of roots forms will lay roots outside of the South. The public's references for this kind of music—roots stuff, perhaps with a little rock twisted in—will grow, expanding the vocabulary of common touchstones for such sounds. A band's sound will become more than a collection of instruments, facial hair or geographic associations.
"You know, if we were being strategic about who we want to like us, it would be important," Terrell says of comparisons to The Avett Brothers. "But I'm not worrying about it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Country was."