The Avett Brothers: Of Music and Men
Neighborhood Theater in Charlotte, 2009
Sadly, that darkness encroached on the band last year when Crawford’s 22-month-old daughter Hallie was stricken with a brain tumor and had to undergo two surgeries after suffering a stroke and he was forced to take a leave of absence from the band. The news devastated the tight-knit group, but after eight months of relying on fill-in bassist Paul DiFiglia, the brothers say that they can see a time in the not-too-distant future when Crawford will return.
“On one hand, you want to reach out for selfish reasons and say, ‘We miss you man, we’d love to have you out here,’” says Seth. “But you have to recognize that what he’s doing is the right thing. So we’ve just been trying to hold it down while he’s gone, but he’s been starting to make his way out to more shows. He and his family have been going in the right direction for months now.”
Seth pauses before adding, “It’s just one of those unforeseen things you can never imagine when you’re a bunch of young guys getting together to write songs and stomp around onstage, trying to sell some CDs. Then it’s a decade later and you’re grown men with families and these tragedies start happening. I don’t know one person who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way, but it still blindsides you every time.”
To illustrate, he again references the new song “Live and Die,” which clearly means a lot to the brothers and seems likely to be the centerpiece of the new album. It’s the sort of timeless message that the Avetts are focused on conveying now.
“Our attitude has changed somewhat in that we no longer feel like a song we’ve just written has to be recorded and released next month in order to be relevant,” Seth says. “In these 22 songs we’ve recorded, there’s one about a young child, and then there’s another about a relationship with the mother of that child six years ago. Songwriting isn’t really a linear thing for us anymore. They’re all kind of going on all the time.”
The brothers have, in fact, developed different working methods, even though each maintains a regular songwriting routine. Seth appears to be the one more at home in the studio though, with Scott spending a large part of his time creating visual art.
“I shoot myself in the foot when I say this because I start convincing people around me that it’s true when it’s a lie, but there’s a part of me that feels when a song’s written, then I’m on to the next song,” says Scott. “I haven’t engaged yet in pressing buttons or hearing what certain buttons do. But the older I get, the more I really want things to come out the way I’m hearing them in my head—and the only way to do that is get involved in the studio more often.”
On the other hand, Seth admits that he would be recording every day if he could, even though he adds, with a laugh, that doing the same thing every day would undoubtedly lead to him hating himself. “It’s like when we’re on the road. After about a month, you start asking yourself, ‘Who am I? Then you get home, and after two months you start missing the stage because that’s a big part of who you are. But I think about recording daily, because it takes a lot of practice to do it well. I feel so fortunate that we’ve been able to work with Rick and our engineer Ryan Hewitt. These guys are the best in the world, especially Ryan, from a technical standpoint. If you’re able to articulate to him what you’re looking for, he can make it happen. It’s like when I hear a Bob Dylan song that he recorded 40 years ago, it’s still so relevant to me, and that’s what we’re after.”
Unlike some artists, the Avetts don’t drop Dylan’s name lightly. At the 2011 Grammys, they took part in an unusual tribute to the man, sharing the stage with their British counterparts Mumford & Sons in backing Dylan on a rousing version of “Maggie’s Farm.” It served well as a symbolic passing of the folk torch, although the Avetts say that the music of North Carolina has always been in their blood.
“I think that there’s a rural part of us that we can’t escape,” Scott explains. “Even when you talk about people like John Coltrane, there’s a small-town part of him that was always there because of his childhood in North Carolina. And I’m not saying small-town as far as little, but [more as] a very focused way of looking at something that makes it digestible for everybody. I think Doc Watson is a perfect example of that. He’s got a very direct way of delivering a song. And as convoluted as John Coltrane could get, I think what he did was understandable whether you were a music major or not. For us, it was never so much bluegrass, which came from further west into Virginia, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. When you get into the Piedmont area, where we’re from, the sound is based more in blues, country blues. Artists like Blind Boy Fuller came from there, and Charlie Poole.”
Seth chimes in, “I don’t know that there’s a sound, but there’s a spirit. In all of those Piedmont artists that we love, there’s something in their music that we’d like to have in our music, which is an authenticity and a catchy kind of poppiness, too. The pop music of that time—in the ‘20s and ‘30s—is obviously nothing like the pop music today, but its still fun to listen to and can deal with everything from paying the rent to meeting the Grim Reaper.”
Another of Seth’s analogies is unexpected, but makes perfect sense. “That spirit is in NASCAR as well,” he says. “[The famous driver] Richard Petty is from our area, and we knew a lot of Dale Earnhardt’s family growing up. The guys that we know from that world who became internationally famous started from very humble beginnings. It was success built completely on a work ethic and also a great attitude toward the fans. There isn’t a better example than Richard Petty of someone who always showed his appreciation to his fans, and we’ve taken that to heart.”
When asked if the Avetts would ever consider relocating elsewhere, Scott concludes, “We just love North Carolina so much It’s home base and definitely a sanctuary. I feel like we’re part of something unique to that part of the country. I feel like we belong there very much.”
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