Jim Avett and the Avett Brothers come to Pittsburgh with two styles of country -- but the same family values
May 26, 2011 4:00 AM
Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers will take the AE stage Friday.
Seth Avett in June 2010 show in Cheswick.
Jim Avett, father of the Avett Brothers, will perform Saturday at Club Cafe.
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"We had some wind yesterday and one of the trees blew down," Jim Avett says, sounding a little winded himself as he picks up the phone.
"This morning I was out there with a chain saw," he adds laughing, "so if I don't hear very well that's what the hell it is."
Mr. Avett, with a fine Southern twang, is speaking from the family's 60-acre farm in Concord, N.C. He's not one of the famed Avett Brothers. They are Scott and Seth. Jim is the Avett Father, a man who can take a good bit of credit for his boys' success but surely won't.
The Avett Brothers, who play a rowdy, banjo-bustin' blend of country, punk and bluegrass, are one of the most acclaimed and successful bands on the Americana circuit. They return to Pittsburgh, one of their favorite stomping grounds, for a sold-out show at Stage AE Outdoors Friday.
The Avett Brothers
With: Nicole Atkins.
Where: Stage AE Outdoors, North Shore.
When: Doors at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: Sold out.
Jim Avett is making the trip up for the show, and then he'll stick around one more night to play his own gig at the first spot his boys played here, Club Cafe.
"Someone wrote in an interview a while back, 'His sons are rambunctious and there's an awful lot of energy. If you go see Jim, it's more ballads.' And that's true. One of the reasons old people hate young people is they got so damn much energy."
To get the full Avett musical picture, you have to go back at least one more generation.
Jim Avett's dad was a Methodist preacher and his mother was a concert pianist well versed in Bach, Beethoven, etc. "When they got married," he says, "my mama became the church organist at every church we ever went to, which is an unpaid position, but bless her heart, she was a great mother and a great supporter of Daddy and anything that he did."
She started Jim and his siblings on piano to give them the fundamentals, and then when he was 13, his dad bought him a $5 guitar. He doesn't remember a lot of people having one of those in 1960.
"I was looking at that guitar in amazement, not knowing anything about it. My brother, who was six years older than me, walked in the living room and said, 'You want me to show you how to play that thing, boy?' He taught me three chords and for about eight or 10 months, I played those three chords never even suspecting there was another one. There are over 11,600 chords on a fretboard of a guitar! Playing a guitar is like playing chess -- you can go from the very simplest moves to the most complex moves."
It was the time when country was really country. Not country-rock, or pop-country or alt-country. He applied his three chords to all the Hank Williams songs he could figure out.
"My mom and dad would rather me have listened to some other stuff, but which mom and dad wouldn't rather their kids listen to some other stuff? But they never said anything and they never pointed me in any direction I didn't need to go. They would gently pull the rein instead of jerking the rein."
Jim Avett, who has more than 500 songs in his repertoire, wouldn't go on to become a professional musician. Instead, he became the proprietor of Avett Precision Welding, specializing in highway bridge work. He and Susie, his wife of 42 years, had the two boys and a girl, Bonnie (who is a dance teacher), and also maintained a farm complete with crops, chickens and cattle.
He says he saved time for music every day and now that he's retired from the company, at 64, he has a lot more of it. He released a gospel-tinged album called "Jim Avett and Family" in 2008 and returned last year with a warm, traditional country acoustic record, "Tribes." And then he has his slightly rowdier moments. "Tuesdays and Thursdays I pick with a bunch of drunks and rednecks who don't care if it's right, wrong or otherwise."
Sure enough, his homespun passion for music was passed down to his own kids.
"But never in a heavy-handed way," Seth says in a separate interview. "We just grew up with a piano in the living room, and our parents did guide us by encouraging us to take music lessons because they thought a music education was part of a well-rounded education. He always listened to music, always sang to us. It wasn't like, 'You should listen to this. This is good, this is bad.' "
At one point, Jim talks about the difference between music and entertainment, and mentions "American Idol" as an example of the latter. When he's told that there's a decent country singer in the midst this time around, he admits that he hasn't really ever followed it.
"Where we live, we don't have and never had cable. We live too far for the cable company to bring anything out here and I don't watch enough TV to justify gettin' a damn dish."
And so, the Avett Brothers grew up without their MTV, having to create their own entertainment.
"Oh, yeah, there's many more things to do," Jim says. "When you're on the farm, it was somewhat easier for me to teach lessons that need to be taught. And it's mom and dad's responsibility to teach them some things the schools took out. Things like life, things like death, things like sex. You got a bull and a cow over there, you don't have to explain sex -- there it is. Birthing sometimes is not an easy thing for a cow. I have seen and been a part of hooking a cow to a Volkswagen to pull it out. Sometimes the calf comes out in one piece, and sometimes it doesn't. But these things are part of life, and it doesn't always go the way you want it to go."
THE AVETT BOYS
Despite growing up on a farm and being steeped in dad's music -- from Hank Williams to the Everly Brothers to Bob Dylan -- the Avett Brothers didn't hit the world flashing their country roots.
Seth, 31, was in a high school rock band in Charlotte called Margo, while Scott, four years older, was in a college band at East Carolina University called Nemo.
"It was that basic two-guitar, five-piece, kids in tennis shoes, just going out there and going at it as hard as you could," Scott told the PG a few years back. "A lot of screaming and throwing your body around the stage. We were greatly influenced by Mike Patton [of Faith No More] and all of his projects, and it was always important to have a lot of dramatic jumps and explosions, music that was down and up, down and up. It was a lot of push and pull and stop and go."
Around 1998, he started playing an acoustic jam session called the Back Porch Project or Nemo Downstairs where they would sit around banging out country and bluegrass. Around the same time, Seth joined Nemo for a few years, and when the band split, the Avetts decided to stick together as a duo. They liked the idea of stripping the music down to its essence while having the freedom to be more portable with acoustic instruments.
"It was obvious," Scott said, "that the fan base, compared to what we were doing with electric instruments, was much broader, and you didn't have to force-feed it to people as much."
The Avett Brothers self-released their debut EP in 2000, then added stand-up bassist Bob Crawford for 2002's full-length, "Country Was." By 2006, they had built up a discography that was raw, spirited and occasionally off-key but thoroughly engaging with sibling harmonies to die for, poetic story songs and vulnerable love songs, plenty of them starting with "Pretty Girl from ..."
When they took their wares to the market, the more conventional country-folk establishment didn't have a clue what to do with them.
"I think if you hear the boys and somebody asks you, 'What's it like?' it's sort of like the first time you heard Dylan, it's sort of like the first guy who heard Dylan. He probably said, 'Well, it ain't like nuthin' you ever heard ... but you're probably gonna like it,' " Jim says.
"The boys went to play in Nashville, maybe five years ago. They played before 30 record executives. After about 20 minutes one of them stood up and said, 'I'll speak for everybody here. We absolutely love what you're doing,' but in the same breath, he said, 'We don't have a box to put you in.' Scott looked at Seth and looked back at me and said, 'That's OK, we're prepared to do it on our own.' "
The Avetts refined their songwriting and the buzz kicked up with the 2008 album "Emotionalism." They topped the Heatseekers chart, made their late-night debut on Conan O'Brien and won an Americana Music Association Award. The Paste magazine review headline declared, "North Carolina roots trio takes a transcendent stand against postmodern emptiness."
Clearly, it had something to do with Avett Family values.
"We're nothing special, we're just normal people," Jim says. "I told our children that growing up. 'There's nothing special about us. We're just normal people.' And the older they got, they said, 'No, Daddy, we're not normal. There's so much divorce and there's so much drugs and this, that and the other.' Unfortunately, normal means what most people do. I don't guess that most moms and dads are married after 42 years. I guess brothers and sisters don't get along as well as our children do. Maybe we're not normal, but that's a sad thing to say."
The Avetts hit the road hard mid-decade and made Pittsburgh a regular tour stop, starting at Club Cafe and Diesel and moving up to festive and well-attended Three Rivers Arts Festival shows, where they first turned up with cellist Joe Kwon.
"I don't want to make any of them seem like less than any others, but one that really stands out is a show at Club Cafe," Seth says. "We might have played there two or three times, but one night with the sound system, there was just one problem after another. We ended up unplugging and getting down on the floor with everyone, just in the middle, without the aid of any electricity at all. Also, there was an outdoor one, Downtown, where the whole time it looked like some nasty storm was coming. It was sort of fun in that eerie gray storm kind of way."
By that visit, in 2009, the Avetts were signed to American Records and ventured into Rick Rubin's studio, where the legendary producer cleaned up the sound even more for "I and Love and You." Some people loved it -- it topped more than a few top-10 lists -- others thought it too polished.
"Our goal every time we make a record is to make it better than the last one," Seth says. "In terms of a polished sound or unpolished sound, that's something we just kind of figure out along the way. We're always trying to give ourselves the most tools and the most ability to get whatever sound is most called-for for a song, so sometimes the cleanness or the dirtiness sort of happens haphazardly. I was very happy with the way the record turned out. Again, each record is just a chapter, a marking of a time in our trip. The next record [which he says is 60 percent done], all I'm really focused on is making it the best record we've ever made, and I feel like we're well on our way to that."
READY FOR PRIME TIME
In the wake of "I and Love and You," the Avetts toured with the Dave Matthews Band, played Bonnaroo and upped the size of their venues, even as they trimmed back on dates a bit. (Scott and Seth are married, and Scott has a young child. Mr. Crawford has his second on the way.) Their biggest exposure yet came in prime time when they played one of their songs and then joined Mumford & Sons to back Bob Dylan on the Grammy Awards.
Seth, who first turned up here looking like an extra in "Deliverance," hit the stage in a tailored suit as if he just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. He says it was "like any of those surreal moments or big moments you have in your life, like a flash. The whole thing happened like within a few moments."
Asked if Dylan expressed anything about being a fan of the band, he says, "none of the words I had with him spoke to that at all, but it's my understanding he may have played some of our music on his radio program."
Seeing them on stage with Bob Dylan might be the kind of moment where a light bulb goes off and you say, "My boys have made it," but Jim Avett says he doesn't think that way.
"I had a guy from the Charlotte Observer sitting on the porch who said, 'When did you realize the boys had made it?' We don't sit around saying, 'Today was the day they made it -- or not.' I remember when the boys couldn't draw 10 people and maybe got paid $20, $25. When they drew 10, they wanted to draw 20 and make $40. It is all relative. Success is not made out of how much money you make. What you gauge it on is how you affect people's lives.
"Seth asked me a couple years ago, 'How are we going to pay you back for all the time and money you put into this band?' I said, 'You don't owe me anything. This is what daddies do.' He asked one more time, 'How do I pay you back?' I said, 'If I come to one of your concerts, if I come to Pittsburgh and see you up there, you won't find me in a seat looking up at the stage.' I know what they look like, I know what they sound like. I'm looking out in the crowd, I'm looking for that girl that's just dancing away. I'm looking for the guy who is lost in thought. I'm looking for the ones who are affected by the music, because that pays me back, that pays all of it back, that makes every bit of it worthwhile."