Some call them Southern gentlemen; others call them crazy. Folk rockers the Avett Brothers have always sealed business agreements with just a handshake -- even now, as the band makes its new home on a major label.
"All the records we put out, we went on a handshake and good faith," the band's manager, Dolphus Ramseur, says. "I know a lot of people think I'm crazy not to have a contract with the Brothers. But as my mother says, you're only as good as the person signing the piece of paper."
The Avetts' relationships with Ramseur, who also is head of the band's former record label, Ramseur Records, is not the only close bond the quartet has maintained over the past nine years. The former Dave Matthews Band tourmates have made a commitment to their fans through tireless touring in smaller markets.
"We haven't tried to make this thing happen too quickly through the Internet, the blogs, the press or radio, but just by winning over folks through live shows, one fan at a time," Ramseur says. "Word-of-mouth is the most underrated form of promotion."
But the Concord, North Carolina, band -- Scott Avett (banjo/vocals), Seth Avett (guitar/vocals), Bob Crawford (upright bass) and touring member Joe Kwon (cello) -- won over more than just eager fans with word-of-mouth praise. Renowned producer Rick Rubin took notice, eventually signing the Avett Brothers to his Columbia imprint American Recordings in 2008 and producing the band's new album, "I and Love and You," out September 29.
The album, the band's 13th release, is one that Avett says has seen its fair share of delays -- the only hint of growing pains for an act formerly accustomed to the lightning-fast pace of a two-person label. The Avett Brothers and Ramseur committed to a record deal that Ed Alexander, their project manager at Columbia, calls a "unique scenario." It has allowed them to keep their long-established business arrangements, with few changes, while Columbia, as Avett puts it, "adds fuel to the fire."
Even though the Avett Brothers remain rooted in tradition, their music has evolved on the latest album. The band, which has been touted as "grunge grass" and "country punk," delves into piano-driven pop melodies on "I and Love and You" -- territory that Avett isn't afraid to explore, proudly proclaiming his love of '80s pop music. "I lived on a dirt road in a 60-acre farm in North Carolina where Michael Jackson probably never stepped foot. But that didn't matter to me -- I loved him and I imitated him," Avett says.
The Brothers' signature banjo licks and country charm dominate the best songs on "I and Love and You," but the album is nearly devoid of the youthful, punk-tinged attitude behind early Avett albums -- and Avett is OK with that.
"Every artist -- I'm sure Dylan had to do it, the Beastie Boys had to do it, I'm sure a lot of people had to -- digs themselves out of the hole they dug when they were younger because we all evolve musically," he says.
"The Brothers couldn't care less about being cool or even what cool is," Ramseur says. "To me, it's a real fresh thing that they're not caught up in some hip world or some get-rich-quick scheme. They're serious about songwriting, and they aren't afraid of hard work."