In 1975, music journalist and culture critic Greil Marcus published one of the great pieces of pop-music literature, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll. It was a wildly exciting ride through the heart and soul of American folk song that blended myth and fiction, social commentary and cultural history — and a strange and beautiful link among a few seemingly random artists including The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley.
To those names, I would like to add the Avett Brothers.
We put the Avetts on the cover of this issue along with a fairly bold question: "Are the Avett Brothers America's last great rock band?" We're not asking this glibly or casually. Neither is it a casual coincidence that we're using the Avetts to grace our special guide to fall music festivals.
Over the past decade, the Avetts have evolved from one of America's quintessential live rock bands to one of America's great bands period. The Avetts today have learned to put all the frenetic energy they once displayed in smoky clubs into their albums — classic, semi-narrative folk-rock albums that tell bigger stories about what it means to be Southern, to be American, to be alive. In Mystery Train, Marcus writes that what The Band and Elvis, Sly and Randy Newman all have in common is that they "dramatize a sense of what it is to be an American; what it means, what it's worth, what the stakes of life in America might be."
A decade ago, the Avett Brothers were a charming if overly earnest trio of chirpy singers who performed frenzied folk-rock for bankers and frat boys. Their albums were OK, but nothing to get your knickers in a bunch over. Today, the Avetts could be the last of the purveyors of great album-oriented rock — that rare art form that saw its creative peak around the time of The Band's first two albums in late '60s and early '70s — The Band and Music from Big Pink — and became a bloated joke a decade later with the preponderance of pretentious, over-the-top opuses like Pink Floyd's The Wall.
After hip-hop had completely usurped rock's throne by the early '90s, popular music moved on to the art of the remix, another wildly adventurous art form, while the rock album became even more anachronistic, like traditional jazz. Rock albums are still alive, of course, still kicking, still making people happy — they're just not as important to popular culture as they once were.
That's what makes the Avetts so very important. When I first saw them eight years ago, they were performing at the Wachovia atrium downtown. I loved the amalgam of American folk, pop, rock and punk that they played on old-time instruments — guitar, banjo and stand-up bass — normally reserved for a straight bluegrass or country-folk outfit. And while I wasn't so thrilled with their albums, I felt that, as Marcus also wrote of the artists in Mystery Train, the Avetts had "enough ambition to make even their failures interesting."
Then I heard Emotionalism in 2007: It was musical, lyrical, warm, moving, sprawling. When the band's major-label debut, I and Love and You, came two years later, I was hooked. This was album-oriented rock. The Avetts' most recent album, The Carpenter, has only reinforced the band's importance. The Avett Brothers are no longer just a Charlotte-area rock band whose live shows mesmerize; they now occupy the pantheon of great American rock bands.
Maybe the last one.
As the Avetts have grown, they've changed, and their audience will either change with them or go by the wayside — just as the audience for rock itself has. It is, as Marcus writes in Mystery Train, "the tension between community and self-reliance; between distance from one's audience and affection for it; between the shared experience of popular culture and the special talents of the artists who both draw on that shared experience and change it — these things are what make rock 'n' roll at its best a democratic art, at least in the American meaning of the word democracy."
And that's why I would like to see the Avetts on the Mystery Train.