Nashville, Tennessee is a gathering place — the literal “big salt lick” from earlier times. In centuries past, prior to settlers, wild animals came to the area for the sustenance gained from the local deposits. And, just as then, musicians and writers today collect downtown seeking essential nourishment.
The Avett Brothers are in Nashville for the 10th Annual Americana Music Honors and Awards show, a present-day gathering of the wild at the venerable Ryman Auditorium. They will perform their recent release “Once and Future Carpenter” at the show, and also join Jessica Lea Mayfield on one of her songs.
Having just finished their soundcheck for the show, these purveyors of an intensely personal, and undefinable, roots undertaking are in a dressing room upstairs at the primal music temple, atop a narrow staircase. The brothers, Scott and Seth, have the bearing of long-distance runners. Ghosts flicker about.
“Let me set the mood, the lighting in here is terrible,” Scott Avett says. He jumps up from the dressing room sofa, a plush and bizarre maroon, and flips the fluorescents off and the standards on. “It’s like Las Vegas in here — or Nash-vegas — baby!”
Cellist Joe Kwon is with them, and collectively they carry the look of healthy road vagabonds, complete with Doc Martens. “They’re back [the boots] you know,” Scott says. When the clock strikes midnight, they will head west as a sold-out Texas show awaits — part of a current and wildly successful tour. Scott wears a full beard, Seth is clean-shaven.
“Our bodies — we’re not kids —it can get hard, physically problematic,” Seth says with a laugh of the grind of the road. “Around September, I start realizing I’m getting ragged around the edges. It’s tough for us to digest everything that’s coming up. I know we’re here and we have an interview now — I don’t think about tomorrow.”
The phenomenon that is The Avett Brothers defies easy description or explanation. Their acoustic approach, vocal sensibility, resonating material and rowdy shows have built a fan base beyond expectations — including their own.
They have gone from playing clubs for 100 people a night to headlining arenas in front of thousands, all the while maintaining an unusual innocence. They’ve been taken under the wing of the legendary Rick Rubin — yes, he of Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash fame, and the group’s latest studio effort, 2009’s I And Love And You, was their first for his American Recordings label.
The brothers emerged 11 years ago with a self-released EP, The Avett Bros., the result of some hard street time and the long-burning desire to be heard. They were really children still, fresh from a life in the country in Concord, North Carolina, where they had defined their need to play — influenced by everything from Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (whom they consider an official saint) to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Their father Jim, who was half of a folk duo, had given them room to grow in Carolina.
Early on, they felt the spark of music and performing—and a respect for songwriting. “If you considered that what you say matters — even when you’re wrong — you’re owning in on that,” Scott says. “We had a lot of space growing up — with our upbringing — we grew up in the country and had a lot of space to fill with our imagination.
“From the beginning there was always an approach that what I was doing from a lyrical sense — as far as narrating — there was some sort of cinematic or theatrical element to what I was doing. It mattered what I did.
“Early on, the music we heard was super-sentimental, like Tom T. or John Denver even — music that tugged at your heart and you felt it. Then, you wondered where pain came from. You learn it as you get older, you learn about that pain. You know that feeling and you know when it’s coming through you in a song, but early on it’s just instinct.”
Scott picked up the banjo in the late ’90s, and the brothers began to explore some traditional bluegrass and folk roots, and writing original material that suited those tastes.
“I learned the banjo from Ned Mullis in Charlotte,” Scott recalls. “He had been a country guitarist back in the time on WBT on The Arthur Smith Show. Bill Monroe and those guys would go there and there was kind of a little country scene. Ned was in that scene. He played everything and he taught me Earl Scruggs-style banjo, three-fingered.
“I used that as kind of a fallback for us when we started doing this, and I started learning as many of those bluegrass songs as I could and we would just play them amongst our originals,” he continues. “It was fuel to get from one place to another. You’d play one of those like ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and people would go crazy, and then you’d drop in one of your own built on similar lines, and they’d go crazy too and you just start inching in with the banjo a bit that way.
“Bringing it in is a very natural thing. I took piano lessons and I never practiced at it. When I took on the banjo, it was no work for me to learn to play this thing. It was a joy to sit down and it was just my natural fit. I should have picked it up when I was a kid. That was my voice as far as instruments go.”
“And it worked well for the two of us on the street,” Seth adds. “We’d just do the two — guitar and banjo.”
But their interests were broad, and together, they began fronting a neo-punk outfit called Nemo in Charlotte. Through Nemo, they connected with bassist Bob Crawford in 2001, and The Avett Brothers were formally born as they returned to their acoustic roots — Scott on banjo, Seth on guitar and Crawford on standup.
They hit the road and slowly began to build a regional following. Ambitious, prolific and gleaming, they released five albums on independent Ramseur Records between 2002 and 2007, the most notable being the last, Emotionalism. It was the record that got Rubin’s attention.
The Avett Brothers had become a curious mix of a folksy, rootsy band with heavy ties to traditionalism, but freighted with a current energy and viable lyricism and insight, allowing them to push their music forward.
Still in their twenties, they were of this time and this world — a world of the split-second attention span, not one given to listening to a lonesome picker on a porch. It is their lyrical content and often frenetic live approach that has bridged the two realms.
“The history in North Carolina music and in American roots music is unavoidable, really,” Seth insists. “It’s unavoidable if you’re going to learn to play the banjo, say. It’s unavoidable if you’re going to be influenced by those who’ve come before you when you learn to play the banjo.
“I think the reason we’ve pursued music — it’s a little different between Scott and me — but something that’s the same is that music is very compelling to us and very moving. It always seems to be of the utmost importance because we feel something from it — it must be important because it made me feel something very deeply.
“As far as there being a rich American history, and us being a part of the South, of the United States where we’ve grown up, I think it’s unavoidable to be a part of the mix. The reason we do what we do is our desire to be a part of the cycle of giving someone a feeling — a feeling of some sort of connection.”
The connection to something real is important to them. They have been criticized for being too pop by traditionalists; they have been criticized by popsters for being too folksy — not commercial enough to flood radio with singles.
They believe that they’re in it for the long haul, and that it is, ultimately, that connection to traditional building blocks — sound musicianship and writing — that will see them through. Their familial vocal harmony stands out, as does their proficiency on string instruments (they also play piano and drums) and the band remains rock solid with Crawford, drummer Jacob Edwards and the enigmatic Kwon on cello.
“It’s definitely been a road,” Kwon says. “I was trained in classical. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I started in this different type of playing. Hooking up with these guys was a challenge because I don’t know how to fiddle and I figured that was what was needed — an instrument to fill that void, but it ended up as that I just played the way that I play in hopes of it filling in that space.”
It has worked. The band is visually arresting onstage — somewhere between a cross of Civil War veterans and the Grateful Dead — and their sound is unmistakable, thanks largely to the distinctive vocal delivery of the two Avetts. Crawford and Edwards provide the foundation on which they lean, allowing the energy to often careen and pitch onstage.
They rock, they jangle, they screech and they cry. They laugh and throw down songs of love and murder and those things that lie in between. Songs such as the potent “Head Full Of Doubt/ Road Full Of Promise,” the plaintive staple “Murder In The City,” or the pleading “I And Love And You” speak to their enormous promise.
According to Scott, coming to grips with the differences between their live performances and their studio recordings has been part of the group’s growth. “We’d have people in the business, or our friends, say ‘well you’ve got to capture that,’ but it’s not the point,” he says of the idea of reproducing in the studio what they do live. “Even on I And Love And You we started that session by setting up like we do on stage as a starting point and we scrapped it immediately the next day and sat down. That’s what it called for — identifying what’s important — what really makes up the songs.”
Again, it returns to the writing, and their own personal progression. “Whatever is happening on the big picture is not something we’re aware of as it’s happening,” Seth says. “We are inhindsight. I think it’s only natural and appropriate that some of the themes are working their way and changing without us thinking about it. Our goal is to write songs that are genuine in some way—not necessarily word for word about what has happened to us or what is happening with us in our lives. When I was 20 years old, I could only write about my own loneliness or my own pain. It was my world.
“Now, we’re grown men with families so it affects your view and your writing. We try to let the songs change as we change. On I And Love And You, there’s a song about getting married [“January Wedding”], and we’re working on a song now about having children. For us, age has linked up right along with where we are spiritually, to religion, to feelings, to humanity — to how you treat people and how they treat you. The themes open up wide when you get older and realize really how little you are.”
The association with Rubin has stimulated and supported that continued growth. His taste-making sense, and the fact that he is a flesh and blood barometer for American popular music, bodes well for the Avetts.
“He was very straightforward when we met him,” Scott recalls. “He’s a true music fan. He cares a lot about honesty. It was very automatic as far as us having a connection.”
“He wants music to be as great as it can be,” Seth adds, as confirmation.
To that end, The Avett Brothers are putting the finishing touches on a second American Recordings album, as yet untitled. Expected to be released in early 2012, the record was tracked at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, N.C. I And Love And You was primarily recorded at The Document Room in Malibu under Rubin’s tutelage.
“On I And Love And You, we learned how to trust each other and learned how it worked,” Seth says. “Now we know how to do it, how we needed to release what we have inside.”
The conversation turns to the reason they are in Nashville, sitting in the funky upstairs dressing room beneath photographs of Flatt & Scruggs, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Marty Robbins — a littered parade of Opry greats as mute witness to the wonder.
Directly beneath the dressing room floor, Robert Plant and his Band of Joy prepare for the night by rolling through a soundcheck on the hallowed stage. Strains of “Monkey” arise, as Plant’s voice seeps into the room. Ernest Tubb is smiling above Scott’s head.
The scene crystallizes it all. The artists gathered at the holiest country music shrine on earth for the Americana awards show reject definition and warm to the idea of having a collective home for one night.
What do you do with The Avett Brothers? They are country boys, after all, and they are filling arenas. Someone has to recognize this, right?
“We never envisioned anything at all,” Seth says. “This scene was a nice surprise to us — to be part of generating it — or getting some blood flowing within it. Being included with artists that are approaching it with a lot of integrity, a lot of thought, and a lot of care to the music. That’s just a special thing to be a part of. Everyone cares so very much about it.”
Scott agrees. “That’s the good thing about it—the artists have driven it,” he says. “This scene has been built on the likes of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt — guys that couldn’t make it in the country scene because they were just too real. They weren’t going to be [accepted] in Nashville — they were barely going to be in Austin. They were just too real.
“They drove the birth of this. It’s about songwriting and it’s about art. There’s a lot of feeding that can happen around that. It can’t be masked. It will stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a beautiful place to be because it’s driven by the art, not the making of the product.”
Seth sits next to Scott in a chair, leaning forward intently. The Band of Joy is thumping the stone below. “That’s hitting it on the head I believe,” he says. “The most important part of this is songwriting. That’s the thing that binds all these people together — including the folks in the pews tonight. And you’ll find that in the highest quality of each genre. Look at the hip-hop scene you’ll find the highest quality in the songwriting. Lyricism. Whether it’s within the country or the rock & roll realm, you’ll find it. Songwriting — that is the binding agent.”
The show is a few hours away. The boys don’t know it yet, but they’ll take home the Best Duo/Group award, the third time since 2007 they’ve been so honored by the association. At midnight, award in hand, their bus will roll toward Texas. But for the moment, they can rest in a suspended time, a gathering place — one where sustenance is found in a song.