Pundits sometimes feel frustrated because they can’t confine Carbon Leaf’s sound to any particular parameters. Regardless, this Richmond, Virginia-based band still has managed to garner its populist appeal thanks to a wide-ranging repertoire that combines alt-country, folk, indie rock and Celtic influences.
That eclectic stance has served the group well, given a collective career that now spans nearly 30 years and 20 albums. Fans will be able to witness it for themselves when the group performs Blount County’s first live, large-scale concert of 2021. It will be on the lawn at Dancing Bear Lodge and Appalachian Bistro at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 15.
The group first formed while its members were attending Randolph-Macon College in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
“All five members had different influences when we came together, from AC/DC to the Grateful Dead, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Neil Young, and from the Beach Boys to R.E.M,” said Barry Privett, one of Carbon Leaf’s founding members and a principal player to this day.
“We were just throwing everything into the soup starting out,” he said. “It was every bit of a rock band though. We all had some acoustic and folk influences growing up, but it took us a while to add those in, but once we did, it opened up some doors to our sound that proved to be an interesting and enduring twist. It’s nice to have different places to go stylistically and to try different genres. I guess you could call us a rock band with folk roots.”
After graduation, the band branched out and began playing nearby college towns on the weekends. “At first, it was kind of a Thursday-Saturday thing, and then it just started spiraling outward from there,” Privett said. “Day jobs turned into part-time jobs, and then the band started gaining enough of a following to allow us to turn this into a full-time job.”
Privett (vocals, penny whistle, acoustic guitar and bagpipes), Carter Gravatt (acoustic, electric mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, 12 string guitar, lap steel, bouzouki, bodhran, loops, effects, hurdy-gurdy, violin and vocals), Terry Clark (electric and acoustic guitars and vocals) have been with the band since 1992. Bassist Jon Markel and drummer/percussionist Jesse Humphrey came on board later.
The band scored its first major hit in 2004 with “Life Less Ordinary,” a song that crept into the Top 5 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative charts. It eventually signed with Vanguard Records, but later left the label and began releasing itrs music independently. It also took the unusual step of re-recording many of its earlier albums to sell them under their own aegis.
“Traditional music industry success has come in waves,” Privett said. “The key is to have a foundation for the business side and the creative side that can counterbalance the ups and downs over time. You have to adapt. Instead of touring 250 dates a year, it’s more like 100. Being aware of change, being flexible, staying friends firstly — all these things have given shape to our trajectory as we continue to write and release albums independently.”
Privett said that Carbon Leaf’s upcoming performance at Dancing Bear will only be its 10th performance since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s been a long, rough year, but we can’t complain, considering so many other people who have had much, much rougher roads,” he said. “We have played a smattering of outdoor shows and livestreams, but we did have to cancel about 125 shows over the course of the year.”