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Avett Brothers, headlining Appel Farm, grapple with their growing success

CONCORD, N.C. - When Scott Avett sings the last bars of the Avett Brothers' "I and Love and You," he puts his fingers over his heart, then gestures out to the audience.

CONCORD, N.C. - When

Scott Avett

sings the last bars of the

Avett Brothers

' "I and Love and You," he puts his fingers over his heart, then gestures out to the audience.

It is a symbol of what he and his brother Seth say the song is about - not a lost love, but the growing distance that success has put between them and their audience. It's a rare occurrence now for them to sit at a bar after a show and chat with fans; after some shows, too many fans show up at the bus for them to even shake all their hands.

The "ands" between the "I love you" "make it where it's not just getting to say 'I love you,' " Seth said. "It's about the separation. And we're experiencing an ongoing kind of separation from a growing fan base."

With the success they've had over the past year, that chasm might grow even wider. Though the North Carolina-based band has been around for years and has released several albums, they had their best commercial success with their eighth CD, "I and Love and You," which was produced by Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin, whose credits range from Johnny Cash to the Dixie Chicks to Jay-Z.

The album has sold 181,000 copies in the United States, according to their record label, and garnered plenty of critical acclaim. It was named Paste magazine's best of 2009 and one of the best of the decade.

Their concerts in medium-sized venues sell out across the country, and they started their first major international tour in mid-March with performances sold out in London, Amsterdam and Dublin. They're now performing mostly at festivals in the United States, Great Britain and Canada through September.

That brings them to our neck of the woods tomorrow as they headline the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer, N.J. (See sidebar for details.)

The guys in the band - which includes one non-brother, Bob Crawford - describe themselves as overthinking romantics who don't really excel at vocals or playing their instruments, although they hope to improve at the latter.

Their popularity lies both in their deeply emotional lyrics and their unusual sound. It's a mixture of pop, country and grunge influenced by the country music that their parents listened to, and the music they embraced as youths - Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson and Boy George.

"We grew up in the country, and country living didn't exactly promote the Ramones. That just doesn't fit," said Scott, 33. "But when you're 14 years old, you don't really care what fits in the country. I bet you anything there are 14-year-olds in Brooklyn who are going straight to Hank Williams. That's what they want to go to. Rebellion, that's given."

But that country upbringing kicked in eventually as the brothers realized, over time, that "we had a yearning to write songs about things that were understandable and relatable, which is a great jump," said Seth, 29.

During concerts, they move from instrument to instrument, with Scott concentrating on the banjo and playing the drums when necessary, while Seth plays guitar and piano. Scott's role hasn't changed much since childhood, when his father, Jim, remembers him as the ringmaster of performances with Seth and their sister, Bonnie.

"I was just demanding in every way. 'Do that, do this. Watch this. This will be great, y'all,' " he said, shaking his head as he recalled his orders.

The Avetts like to think that success hasn't changed their lives. Both are married and live with their respective families outside Concord, about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte, near the 60-acre farm where they grew up.

Cows, dogs and roosters are part of the landscape at their parents' home, where, until just this year, the brothers were as likely to be found rolling hay as writing songs. As they sing in the barn during this interview, the cows' moos override the music, and Scott tosses two bales to the muck below to quiet their complaints.

What has changed for both Avetts is they no longer accept performances or lyrics that do not measure up.

"The reality of these songs being attached to us for the rest of our lives is much more pertinent and that's something we're very aware of now. Whatever we put out there, to some extent, we have to answer for forever," Scott said. "And as long as we're performing and touring, if we write a song, we'd really better believe in it because between now and the end of our lives, we might play that song 5,000 more times."