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Colleen Sheehy, Published July 09 2013

NxNW: Bands revive music of past

The Avett Brothers and the Cactus Blossoms, a young country western group from the Twin Cities who plays a street dance July 18 in front of Plains Art Museum, share more than just a tour stop in Fargo.

Both bands are fronted by brothers: Seth and Scott Avett and Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And both bands have me reflecting on Americana, music revivals and quandaries about playing old musical styles.

I come to this quandary with a real love of old-time music and the ways in which young musicians find weight, beauty and inspiration in past styles and earlier artists.

What is gained and what might be lost in these musical revivals? Is originality, novelty, fresh sounds irrelevant today in an era of remakes and sequels in so many art forms?

I think it depends – on the artist and the context.

Bob Dylan was a young master at reviving old sounds in 1962 when he released his first album on Columbia Records, featuring mostly traditional songs. Critic Greil Marcus said the 19-year-old even sounded like an old man.

But Dylan then did something new. He brought folk music together with British and American poetry traditions, sprinkled with the word play and Zen ideas of Beat writers Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.

He made folk music cool and more mainstream. And then he pissed a lot of people off by electrifying it and diving into rock ‘n’ roll.

Still, legions of musicians have been influenced by his ability to reinvent old musical styles and make them relevant to contemporary audiences.

This week, Uncle Bob played both Duluth and St. Paul with Uncle Tupelo’s Jeff Tweedy in what is dubbed “Americanarama.”

Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo and bands like the Minneapolis-based Jayhawks adopted country-folk styles that went against the grain of much pop music of the 1990s, reviving a strain of roots music that critics called “No Depression,” in reference to an old Carter Family song.

My quandary with the musical brothers coming to town is this: I should like the Avett Brothers and their North Caroline bluegrass. They have all the right ingredients, but I think their song writing is weak.

I have unabashed enthusiasm for The Cactus Blossoms. When I first walked into the Turf Club in St. Paul, where they were in residence every Monday night, I immediately felt transported to a 1940s honky tonk in Texas.

They cover classic country western such as Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Patsy Kline and more. And they also do their own original songs.

With a pedal steel and upright bass players, fiddler, and the brothers’ vintage guitars, they have a richly textured country sound. They are not nostalgic about this music. They don’t play to hark back to “the good old days.”

But they are revivalists, demonstrating that good country music can draw on sonic landscapes of the past that speak to us today.

With the Avett Brothers, I’m willing to be won over at their live performance.


NxNW is an occasional arts and culture column written by Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.