Graduating to the big time 

The underground's always been as fertile as the land beneath Jed Clampett's home; it frequently bubbles forth with the kind of black gold that transported his family to Beverly Hills. Ol' Jed would appreciate the Avett Brothers, whose rustic undertones might remind him of his backwoods cabin, and who themselves are managing a similar transition. After building a rabid grass-roots following over the last nine years, they signed with Rick Rubin's American Recordings (a subsidiary of Columbia Records) last year, and are ready to release I and Love and You in September, their follow-up to 2007's independent success Emotionalism.

Like any great recipe, the Brothers — siblings Scott and Seth Avett, upright bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon — add up to more than the sum of their parts. While it's easy to point to the graceful harmonies, the warmth of their acoustic string-band arrangements, the hooks and intelligent lyrics or the energy of their live performances, there's something special that happens between them that's hard to resist.

The band bloomed off the branch of Scott and Seth's earlier punky rock act, Nemo. "After a Nemo gig, we'd all get together and play acoustic … just stay up all night long and play," says Scott Avett.

When Nemo imploded in 2000, the brothers forged on with this new entity, infusing it with the stage intensity and intimacy of a hardcore show. Sweaty and sweet, raw and rambunctious, their take on country-folk managed to blend hot and cool in a distinctive way they continue to refine, slowly bringing their pop instincts to the fore and evolving from an Americana act into something more sublime. The evolution was readily apparent on Emotionalism, an album that explodes its genre confines with songs so catchy and evocative they defy indifference.

From the moribund "Die Die Die," with its echoes of the Everly Brothers, to the lightly strummed jangle of "The Weight of Lies," admonishing, "When you run, make sure you run/To something and not away from/'Cause lies don't need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere," there is a bright beauty to the album, their first recorded in a studio. Emotionalism eventually made it onto the Billboard charts, piquing Rubin's interest.

The jump from the indies to the majors was "intimidating in an exciting way," says Crawford as they trek from Chicago to Detroit. "Intimidating like this is going to be scary, or something really awful can happen here. But Scott always said, ‘Even if we make the worst album ever and have an awful experience, we're going to learn from it.'"

Fortunately the experience was enjoyable. Rubin pushed them hard: "Where before we would do two or three shots before we got the bass-banjo-and-guitar, we would end up doing 20 times with Rick Rubin," he says. "Ten times this way and 10 times that way. Instead of doing seven songs a day, we'll do two." But they were up to the challenge, honing their studio skills just as they'd honed their pop instincts over the years.

"Between each album we've made a nice step in the direction of maturing," says Crawford. "What I'm most pleased with is I think we only went one step from Emotionalism to the new album, where I was worried we were going to make five or six steps in one jump."

That end is nowhere in sight, and they intend to keep it that way.

"The songs are always evolving, even from the beginning until now," says Crawford. "Scott and Seth always approach it as a craft and something you don't ever give up on. You never stop learning, you never stop trying and you never stop practicing."


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