The Avett Brothers: Race For The Prize

AvettBrothers

With their heart-on-sleeve mix of bluegrass and punk, the prolific members of North Carolina’s Avett Brothers are on the road to success. But even as the miles click by on their latest tour, the Avetts remember to slow down and enjoy the view. By Tizzy Asher

Traversing the country in a tour van can feel like being at sea. The highway thunks beneath the wheels like waves lapping the bow, and oases of gas stations and convenience stores appear like tropical islands. Perhaps this is what has caused Scott Avett, banjo player for Concord, N.C.’s Avett Brothers, to ruminate about sailing. As his van rolls along the freeway from South Carolina to Georgia on yet another leg of the Avett Brothers’ latest tour, Scott contemplates French sailor Bernard Moitessier.

Moitessier was competing in 1968’s Sunday Times Golden Globe Race—the first continuous, individual, round-the-world yacht contest—when he abandoned the lead and abruptly changed course for Polynesia. He wrote, “I am continuing non-stop toward the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul,” placed the message in a film canister, then launched it onto the deck of a passing freighter with a slingshot.

“God, it’s beautiful,” says Avett. “He was so close to winning or coming in second. But he tried to do it for the purity and the right reasons. We can only hope to be like that in whatever realm we are, whether it’s music or art.”

Avett (pronounced Ay-vett) has been considering success a lot these days, given that his band is now experiencing it. Over the past five years, the trio—Scott, his guitar-playing brother Seth and bassist Bob Crawford—has progressed from a small-time, niche-market alt-bluegrass outfit to a theater-filling, cross-genre band with a shot at mainstream exposure. The Avetts have toured steadily through the U.S., logging an average of seven months out of every year on the road, building a fanbase on the strength of their ebullient and passionate acoustic shows. They’ve released five albums, not including a handful of EPs and live records; Emotionalism, their fifth LP, just might be the one that breaks them to listeners not already attuned to the worlds of alt-country, bluegrass and old time.

Like other brother-led, roots-rock bands such as Kings Of Leon and Marah, the Avetts draw from the intimacy forged when young men grow up together. Unlike those outfits, however, the Avett Brothers expose this vulnerability in their songwriting rather than hiding it behind a wall of machismo. The Followills and the Bielankos may boast about romances, but the Avetts are the sensitive boys who actually experience them. Emotionalism is the Avetts’ version of Moitessier’s earnest slingshotted message, delivered with frightening urgency and a pressing need to be heard. The album concerns itself with the raw experiences that three humans can have as they travel the country for months on end.

“What is the common denominator with us and music that we love?” asks Scott. “It’s not subject matter, it’s not genre, it’s not audience, and it’s not where you fit in the CD rack. It’s emotions. It’s where the music is written with or delivered with emotion. It just shows up. We hope to be on that end of it.”

The Avett Brothers’ saga began 26 years ago, when Seth was born. Four-year-old Scott Avett peered over the edge of his brother’s crib and rubbed his hands with glee. “Seth was an intensely generous and sensitive kid,” says Scott. “I manipulated a lot of situations and took advantage of his sincerity.”

Growing up, music ruled the Avett household. Jim, the boys’ father, was a welder by day who dabbled in country guitar in his spare time. He and wife Susie, a teacher, pushed the boys and their sister Bonnie to master the piano before picking up a guitar. The Avetts also took their children to church, where they learned hymns and gospel music. (Last year, the boys recorded an album of gospel songs with their father and are discussing plans to release it.)

“Our mom was a super supporter in every way,” says Scott. “Our father is equally generous; however, his persona and his voice are a little stronger and less flexible. It was really good for our confidence. They pushed us to be confident no matter what we were going to be.”

As a teenager, Scott discovered heavy metal and formed his first band in high school, continuing to play while studying art at East Carolina University in Greenville. Seth focused on piano and guitar, eventually forming bands of his own. Playing metal, the brothers developed a respect for songs with what Scott calls “lots of parts, very intent parts, very mathematical parts.” He claims this influence runs so strongly through the Avetts’ current songwriting that they sometimes have to dumb it down to keep it from getting too complex. (They indulge this urge in Oh What A Nightmare, a rock-oriented side project. Seth also has a gentler solo outlet called Darling.)

When Seth graduated from high school, the brothers reconvened in Greenville as a run-of-the-mill rock band called Nemo. After practice sessions, Scott, Seth and guitarist John Twomey would play bluegrass and old-time standards, a formation they dubbed Nemo Downstairs or the Back Porch Project. In 2000, the trio compiled a six-song demo under the Avett Brothers name. When Nemo imploded in October 2001, Twomey departed and the Avetts discarded their pedals and amps in favor of acoustic instruments.

Around this time, New Jersey native Bob Crawford was studying jazz guitar at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He had just started playing bass when he joined the Avetts in 2001. “When you’ve got two guys, brothers, who’ve had the vision and the drive to do this their whole lives, it would be easy for me to feel isolated,” says Crawford. “But in my weaker self-esteem or self-confidence moments, they’ve always allowed me to know what I mean to them.”

“Bob tends to be a bit of a renegade,” says Scott. “When we started, we made it clear that we didn’t need someone who was as strong-willed as we were in [the songwriting] realm. We have enough abrasion with each other. We didn’t need another person to be a super songwriting force.”

Songs came easily and abundantly to the brothers, and the albums poured out: 2002’s Country Was, 2003’s A Carolina Jubilee (both self-released and now out of print), 2004’s Mignonette and last year’s Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (both on Ramseur, the label run by the band’s manager, Dolph Ramseur), as well as two live albums. Scott and Seth have a natural comfort with one another and a similar drive to create, forged by spending years under their father’s watchful eye.

“They work together like Lennon and McCartney,” says Bill Reynolds, who co-produced Emotionalism. “One writes the verse, one writes the chorus. If one’s tracking a song or playing a guitar part, the other’s right beside him. They stick together so closely.”

Family acts in country gospel music weren’t accidental: Genetics determine the shape of the vocal cords, and that plays a part in vocal tone. Over the years, Scott and Seth have become more symbiotic in their songwriting. “When certain people hear the first line of a song, they can tell whether it’s mine or Scott’s,” says Seth. “It’s hard for me to tell, especially when we write together, because we seem to have a collective mind. I feel proud of his songs as much as I feel proud of my songs. If I look at a song where I wrote the majority of it, I don’t consider it to be my song. I consider “Hand Me Down” (from Emotionalism) to be mine, and Scott wrote that completely.”

“My daddy, he had nine kids, and we loved one another,” says Jim Avett. “I grew up in that atmosphere. We tried to create that in our house. Scott and Seth love one another. Charlie and Ira Louvin sang together beautifully. Ira died in 1965. Charlie said that he still looks to his left, which was where Ira used to sing, and he still misses him. I think that’s what would happen if something happened to Scott or Seth.”

The Avetts’ early records offer more traditional country and bluegrass songs delivered with jubilant, carefree attitude. They sound as if they were having a blast chasing girls, drinking whiskey and playing music on the back porch. There are hints, though, that they take the music far more seriously than they’re letting on. On the chorus of Mignonette’s “A Gift For Melody Lane,” they sing in fractured harmony, “I just want my life to be true/I just want my heart to be true/I just want my words to be true/I just want my songs to be true.”

“We don’t have some marketing ploy or get-rich-quick scheme,” says Ramseur, who doesn’t rule out a transition to a bigger label. “All of us are rooted in blue-collar families. We know what hard work’s all about. We know what’s important. When I first talked to Scott about helping out and putting out their records, I made it clear that I wanted them to put out something they wouldn’t regret artistically in 30 years.”

Someone fell in love while writing Emotionalism. You don’t need to see the album’s cover—which depicts a bird bearing a bright red heart in its talons—to divine the record’s sense of vulnerability. Both Crawford and Scott are married, so process of elimination says it must be Seth, the man lucky enough to shirk the tour van for the luxury of his girlfriend’s car.

“I guess I fell in love with her while the record was being recorded, and those concepts found their way into my songs,” says Seth. “It just happens in this form of songwriting. You wear it on your sleeve. The more you live, the more you learn about these things. If you’re open to it and keep on moving, you can draw from it for your songs.”

While Four Thieves Gone was a riotous and jubilant affair—the sound of boys enjoying boyhood—Emotionalism treats these tender moments with a grown man’s respect and reverence. “Living Of Love” points to love as the only constant within the chaos of modern life: “With Lucifer beneath you, and God above/If either one of them asks you what you’re living of/Say love, say for me love.” Seth’s voice breaks gently on several of the sustained notes, as if he were being convinced by his own words. That’s not to say they’ve given up girl-watching completely: Emotionalism adds Chile and San Diego to a canon of “Pretty Girl From … ” songs that includes Mignonette’s “Pretty Girl At The Airport” and “Pretty Girl From Cedar Lane” and Four Thieves’ “Pretty Girl From Feltre.”

Emotionalism is also the first Avett Brothers record crafted with outside producers and a real studio. The Avetts spent 11 days at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C., with co-producers Reynolds (Blue Rags) and Danny Kadar (My Morning Jacket, Cheap Trick), who set up the space to mirror the band’s performance arrangement in order to capture its live energy.

“I don’t think they knew I was going to put them in a room and make them do it live,” says Reynolds. “They thought it was going to be pieced together. I felt like, ‘Why not get them where they’re most comfortable and doing what they do best?’ They go crazy the whole time and have a lot of fun.”

Emotionalism feels like a vintage car driven five miles above its recommended speed limit. Every piece of equipment—banjo, guitar, standup bass, old piano, voices, kick drum, cymbals—revels in being pushed to the breaking point. Strings rattle from being plucked ferociously on the joyful “Paranoia In Bb Major”; the slight pitch shifts in Scott and Seth’s harmonies vibrate like detuned strings; and you can almost hear Seth chipping paint off his guitar’s pick guard on the darting “Pretty Girl From San Diego.” “Go To Sleep” offers a shuffling, rambling set piece performed live with fiddler Donny Herron (Bob Dylan), cellist Joe Kwon (who plays with Crawford in his side project, New Jersey Transient) and New York City anti-folkie Paleface, who also appeared on Four Thieves Gone. Of the 14 tracks on Emotionalism, four are first takes.

“Sometimes, if you don’t hit the right note, you hit the wrong note, and it has more character and charm,” says Crawford. “Miles Davis used to say, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one with a lot of confidence.’”

The Avett Brothers are best experienced live. They aren’t afraid to reach back to the emotions they felt when writing a song and present them in simple form for an audience. Search for the Avett Brothers on YouTube and you’ll find more than 200 concert videos shot by fans.

“There’s a certain exchange that happens between an excited audience and an excited performer, and that’s when the celebration really happens,” says Seth. “There’s no giver and taker. Everyone’s giving and receiving at the same time. For us, the bigger the crowds get and the more excited they are, it’s more fuel. We had to start this journey by giving everything, and now we’re getting it back. It’s just what we need to take it up and up and up.”

This energy does have its drawbacks, however. Avett shows often get rowdy as the band gets lost in its own performance. On a recent tour, Scott leapt off a Boulder, Colo., stage without considering that the audience contained only 20 people. (He claims the man who received the brunt end of his banjo to the face was “very nice about it.”) Crawford threw his bass at one show, crushing Scott’s thumb. Backstage, the band’s road manager, Dane Honeycutt, frantically tries to keep up with the string-breaking and instrument bashing.

Paleface has witnessed the band’s transformation from a ragged young country-punk band into a streamlined touring operation. He fondly recalls the band’s first show in New York City five years ago, in front of a small audience that included musicians such as Langhorne Slim, Nicole Atkins and Regina Spektor. “To see them go from that to selling out Irving Plaza, it’s gratifying,” says Paleface. “It goes back to the beginning, meeting their dad. He started them. It all makes sense.”

“People say to me, ‘You must be so proud of them,’“ says Jim Avett. “I’m no more proud of them when they make music than when they’re making hay for the cows. If they’d never been musicians, we wouldn’t love them any less.”

Back at home in Concord, Scott is busy crafting large-scale onstage backdrops and alternate covers for copies of Emotionalism that will be sold at CD-release shows in New York City and Philadelphia. And he’s ruminating again on Bernard Moitessier. “I put him on this big banner,” says Scott. “He’s aiming at the bird that’s on the front cover of Emotionalism, trying to shoot him down. There’s the idea of getting quickly shot down and pointed out and targeted.”

Moitessier believed that staying true to what he loved was more important than fame. Competition was destroying his passion for sailing. The Avetts are vigilant for signs that the band is burning out or the music has run its course.

“We believe the journey is the experience,” says Seth. “As far as there being a pinnacle to what we’re doing as a whole, we are very much of the mindset that that does not exist. There is no amount of ‘we made it’ or ‘this is it.’”

“We’ve always said this was a forward-moving ship,” says Scott. “When it’s not moving forward, if it’s not progressing in some way, then it’s going to be docked.”

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