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Eyes on the Prize: Carbon Leaf Shows Off its Eclectic Nature on Rootsy New Album

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If you went to college in the eary '90s, chances are you attended at least one keg party. Campus regulations were looser back then, and students took advantage. Studying at Randolph-Macon College at the time, the guys in Carbon Leaf benefited from those conditions. They put together a cover band regularly gigged at backyard parties and frat events. These days, the band is known for playing an eclectic mix of original music that draws from blues, folk and rock, and its latest album, Constellation Prize is another terrific collection of original tunes.

But back in the band's early days, it was a different story.

"It was bedlam when we first started out," admits Barry Privett. "We cut our teeth as a college band and we were in the last waning years when campuses were keg-based and fraternity parties were where it was at. They hired bands to play their parties for the 15-keg party and that's where we started as a young, dumb college band. I'm glad to have been a part of that. But it took us a good six or seven years to get out of that."

As much as the band got steady work from the start, Privett and Co. weren't content with catering to the frat crowd.

"We wanted to be something that was going to tour and record and sustain itself," he says. "That was a hard time and I remember that transition when we went from being a cover band to writing our own material. It didn't click right away. It took some developing. We lost our early fan base. It was a slow start to get leveled off. "

By the time it released its fourth album, 2001's Echo Echo, the band had started to come into its own. "The Boxer," a lilting tune that sounds like it could be an old Irish drinking song, picked up some steam and won an American Music Award. The band was the first unsigned group to ever perform on the awards show. The success eventually resulted in a deal with Vanguard Records, and 2004's Indian Summer sold remarkably well. But after three albums, the relationship with the label soured and the group turned down an offer to record a fourth album.

"We released three albums on Vanguard, and the first one was really successful and the second one was half as successful and the third one had half of that success," says Privett. "We didn't get the radio and marketing benefits. It's pretty expensive if those things are trading off and you give up your rights and you're in a holding pattern as to how often you can release albums. As the landscape was changing from terrestrial radio and CDs, we decided not to take the offer for the fourth release, which was literally $15,000. Instead of the mentality of throwing the net everywhere but where your fan base is in the hope that you catch more fish, we wanted to focus on our fan base and work with what we know. Maybe you sell less of each release, but it allows you to be more dexterous."

The group then built its own studio and bought "a bunch of gear." It turned out to be the right move. This year alone, the band has issued two albums. And the differences between the discs suggests the extent to which the band draws from a variety of different influences. Released at the beginning of the year, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle reflects the band's interest in Celtic music. It commences with the rowdy "The Donnybrook Affair," a tune that sounds like Green Day covering the Pogues.  

"Around the holidays of last year, we had all these ideas and started writing them down," Privett says. "A couple of those songs were of the Celtic persuasion. We had gotten away from that. The well had gotten dry so we left it for a while. We felt a pull back to it and we decided to make an album from stem to stern that was unabashedly Celtic in nature. We started with that in mind. We had a great time making it. It was fun because the pressure was off. We were just making it for our old school fans."

At that same time, the band started writing Constellation Prize, a companion album that, as Privett puts it, had "a rootsy, Americana, bluegrassy sound."

"So we decided to put that together right on the heels of Ghost Dragon," Privett says of Constellation Prize. "We now have two releases within six months apart. They explore roots music but from two sides of the Atlantic. They're ultimately rock songs and filtered into a rock band experience. It's not like we play straight-up bluegrass or Celtic music. We pursue what our interests are and then see how we can make it our own."

The band even has enough songs for a new album, though Privett says the group won't be back in the studio until 2014.

"We have a regimented system," he explains. "We're either running office stuff during the day or we're rehearsing. We have 600 unfinished demos lying around. There's no shortage of creativity or ideas. There's just a shortage of time. And how many years does a rock band have in them? It's a race against the inevitable. You want to get as much of you out there before the logistics make it impossible. When we break up, it won't be because we hate each other. It will be because life gets too busy."

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