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The Avett Brothers heard the banjo's call

With their banjo/guitar/stand-up bass lineup, earnest vocal harmonies and back story growing up on a North Carolina farm, the Avett Brothers seem like the kind of old-time folk band that emerges almost literally out of the soil.

But Scott Avett, who's got a scraggly beard and pronounced Piedmont accent he came about honestly, was not handed his banjo as a toddler while out raking hay.

"I'm absolutely blown away by how many 15- and 16-year-olds are playing the banjo," he says of today's surge in interest in Appalachian and acoustic music. "When I was a kid, I wasn't getting near a banjo. No chance!"

It's hard to talk about the present of the Avett Brothers -- who released a live CD and DVD this week -- without talking about their past. Much of their appeal comes from their roots in a kind of rustic, "authentic" American experience that's taken on near-mythical resonance with the alternative country and so-called "beard-rock" communities.

Many of the brothers' songs -- "Murder in the City," "Will You Return," "Laundry Room" -- are played on acoustic instruments, and they channel brooding Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt and old-school Tar Heels Doc Watson and Charlie Poole. Their lyrics often assert old-fashioned values of family and tradition.

When writers contemplate the Avett Brothers, they often mention the music's honesty, its lack of artifice and a throwback style that recalls the Band. So it's startling to hear Scott talk about the group's origins around 2001, when he and brother Seth were planning a busking tour and looking for direction.

"We were just totally into hard rock then -- we were in a skate-punk scene," he says. "I wanted something ironic. And when I started playing street corners, I could hear this thing just project. We went all over the country, all the way to San Francisco and Seattle, and that banjo just projects down the street."

As kids in Concord, N.C. -- a small city northeast of Charlotte best known for a nearby NASCAR track -- Scott and Seth Avett picked up some of their parents' love of country music, but just barely. "Growing up, we were much more into '80s punk rock and British pop -- we draw from that so much," Scott says. "We don't feel any loyalty to any particular instrument or type of music or nostalgia.

"We were deeply affected by our discovery of primitive or old-time music that just knocked us out of our socks." But that took place when the brothers were already in their 20s.

Dolph Ramseur, a fellow North Carolinian then running a small label, remembers seeing the group about a year after their busking tour. He was struck by the way Scott played the banjo less like Earl Scruggs and more like a rhythm guitarist or even Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bunnymen.

"They were not the greatest singers or pickers," he recalls. "This is a state with a lot of great musicians. But I could tell right then and there that there was something special: When I got home and my wife asked me, I couldn't describe what kind of band I had just witnessed." He signed them to Ramseur Records and became the group's manager.

Things have come a long way since then. The Avetts -- who are typically augmented by double bassist Bob Crawford and, on tour, cellist Joe Kwon -- have been riding a surge of interest since their 2007 album "Emotionalism" broke them out of the twangy pack.

One of the people impressed with the record was Rick Rubin, who produced "I and Love and You," an album that tempered the band's sound without drastically altering it: The album, released by Sony Music Entertainment, sold well and was hailed as one of 2009's best: They became that rare band that signs with a major label and gains a more mainstream following without alienating their original audience.

"We waited longer to sign with a major label than we could have," says Scott Avett. "We'd dug in so much, in a solid sense, that if someone wanted to change us, it would have been hard."