Coming in to a sometimes conservative genre like bluegrass, old-time, and roots music and blowing it apart as the early Avett Brothers performances sometimes did garnered the brothers some criticism as well as adulation, depending on the demographic you talked to. For their part, Avett says the band is happy doing it either way - traditional or with a more contemporary, rock 'n' roll attitude, and he sees no reason to not do both.
"There are purists out there and negative people," Avett admits. "John Hartford at his best played old-time or bluegrass as well as anyone but he could also piss off an entire room by doing what he wanted."
What the Avett Brothers will be doing this year at MerleFest amounts to 'whatever they want' as well. Fans of the band's recordings will find plenty to enjoy on Thursday night as they play a full concert set, while the more traditional crowd will not want to miss Saturday's special Hillside Stage performance, Avett promises.
"We play so many songs acquired through Doc Watson that we wanted to do something based around that, playing the songs we learned from him," he says, noting that this show will consist mainly of those old-time and country offerings.
The two Jim Avett sets over the weekend, and especially the Sunday morning gospel hour, will showcase selections from the Avett Family's new gospel album. Produced by Scott and Seth and featuring extended members of the Avett clan, it is a clear document of the spiritual foundation of their family.
"It's really dad's record, but working with him it turned into something much more special than we anticipated," Avett says. "We've sung those hymns our whole lives. Our grandma was a church pianist, and grandpa was the minister. Dad would always sing harmony in church over the congregation, and we grew up hearing all that."
Even as the profile of the Avett Brothers as a national touring act, Grammy-nominated band, and more has grown their fan base and notoriety, MerleFest has been an oasis of sorts for the band, Avett says.
"I really have blinders on about that issue," meaning the pressure and scrutiny that comes with increased fame. "When I go to MerleFest I still feel free, safe and comfortable; I don't feel like our growth as a band has changed that experience much other than I don't get to go out on the lawn and watch the sets without everyone talking to me now. It has been what I dreamed it would be, being on that stage instead of watching - we knew it was in us, we just wanted to show people that it was."