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Bending the Roots 

Avetts, Duhks blur Americana formulas at MerleFest

MerleFest is all about tradition. Though the meaning of the word traditional has been stretched over the years, roots-based music is still the focus - there still has to be an acoustic or an Americana tie-in for any act booked for the festival. Newgrass was the name given the genre that brought drums and electricity and even (gasp) rock & roll into the world of bluegrass. Since those early days, traditional music has been stretched even farther, incorporating virtually every type of musical genre. Some of the acts are even unsure themselves what to call the genre-bending music they're bringing to the stage this year.

"I would personally refrain from calling it anything that has grass in it," says Seth Avett of the music he and brother Scott and bassist Bob Crawford perform as the Avett Brothers. "It's more like rock music presented in a bluegrass format. Just because we're using a banjo and a stand-up bass, as soon as bluegrass fans see us set up a kick drum and a high hat, it's like automatically, alright, this isn't bluegrass."

Avett prefers the term "depression-era dance music," or the more direct "honest music." But the band isn't hung up about labels. "If people like it, they can call it whatever they want," Avett says. "They like it, and they think it's polka, that's great with me."

Canada's genre-bending band the Duhks are just as hard to pin down. "Destiny's Child meets the Chieftans" is one of the more interesting descriptions of the band. "On some small scale, yes," says Duhks fiddler Tania Elizabeth. "(Lead singer Jessica Havey) has a Beyonce record, I think. But there's a lot of other stuff going on in there." The Duhks stir up a world-class stew with ingredients including soul, Celtic, salsa old time and folk, blending Latin percussion with old-time sensibilities fronted by a woman with an old-school soul sound. "I think we could do only one genre," says Elizabeth. "We could do hard-core pop but I don't think anybody really wants to."

The Avett's sound, while roots-based, is much harder. "Led Zeppelin, Alice in Chains, Faith No More is coming through just as much as Willie Nelson or Doc Watson and Woody Guthrie," Avett says. The Duhks came later to their roots base. "I didn't really understand bluegrass until Leonard (Podolak, Duhks' founder, banjoist, singer) started playing a lot of that stuff during the long drives to our gigs," Elizabeth says. "I think everybody got a heightened appreciation after that."

But some still don't appreciate what younger bands are doing with traditional music. "You can't expect everybody to like you. But at MerleFest, you're lucky enough that the people at least are courteous and polite enough not to tell you if they hate you," Avett laughs. The Duhks attended MerleFest last year as guests but didn't perform. "We have played other, traditional festivals some bluegrass, some Celtic, some Latin Jazz, lots of hard-core festivals that are only one genre will hire us," Elizabeth says. "Usually, people really enjoy us that much more because they're used to getting just the one thing."

The Avetts plan to expand their fan base this year by doing workshops in the MerleFest Outreach program, April 28-29 in all twenty-one Wilkes County K-12 schools. To further advance their careers, the Avetts have vowed to put out a record every year. "I never thought it was the right thing to do when a band was waiting four years to put a record out," Avett says. "Bob Dylan, throughout his career, he's always put out about an album a year, year and a half. "I don't think that's too much to ask, especially from us."

To date, the Avetts have put out seven releases, plus a self-titled debut from their rock/metal band, Oh What a Nightmare, and a solo work from Seth, Darling. "It's like the Avetts is really our collective story. Darling is just sort of a pen name for me, for my own personal story." Nightmare exists for the band's well-being, Avett says, having been together for two years and only playing live about five times. The Avetts may be a roots band, but those tangled roots need a good dose of rock to keep the Avett organism healthy. That, says Avett, is accomplished by "playing loud rock music, not being any real push to make it into anything but something that just feels really good to do. Heavy rock music for us is just good for our souls."

MerleFest takes place at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro Thursday-Sunday. The Avetts, as well as the Duhks, play Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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