Halfway down the driveway to the Avett family farm in Concord, Scott Avett slows his truck to a stop. His father, Jim, watches as the 36-year-old jumps out, grabs some bales of hay from the side of the road and tosses them into a trailer. Scott wasn't asked to help out. That's just the way he is. Since he was a kid, he's pitched in until all the work is done — just like he's doing on this hot day earlier this summer.
The difference is that today, Scott Avett is a rock star — he doesn't really have to load hay into trailers or work construction in the sun. And yet his willingness — no, his compulsion — to do so is part of the work ethic that's helped catapult him and his fellow Avett Brothers into one of the country's strongest live acts. But the Avetts are now more than just a great live band. Based on their most recent two major-label albums, which are reminiscent in scope of The Band's first two classics, the Avett Brothers could be America's last great traditional, folk-rock outfit.
After more than a year in the studio and lots of performing, the heavy lifting on the Brothers' latest recording is over. On Sept. 11, the band released The Carpenter, its second album for American Recordings. The set of 12 songs is the culmination of more than a decade of increasingly introspective lyrics, constant musical woodshedding and performances that have evolved from frenetic to sublime, earning the band top billing at this year's Bonnaroo fest as well as the upcoming Music Midtown Festival in Atlanta and Southern Ground Festival in Charleston.
But the Avett Brothers have become much more than just a "festival band." The group's most recent trio of albums — Emotionalism, on tiny Ramseur Records, as well as last year's I And Love And You and The Carpenter, both on American — have thrust the Avetts to the status of great composers and arrangers.
What started as a three-piece band — banjo player Scott along with his guitarist brother, Seth, and bassist Bob Crawford — performing a headrushing blend of punk and bluegrass around the Carolinas has developed into a five-member live juggernaut with the addition of cellist Joe Kwon and drummer Jacob Edwards.
"When we used to play the Wine Vault in Charlotte, we were toting our own PA and playing three-hour sets," Scott says. "We were just doing what was natural. It wasn't a five-member band because we couldn't afford to be five people. Now, there's a lot more space to fill and you want to make a live show be a better representation of what you are. It takes more hands."
The Avetts have come a long way from those early days, but in some ways, not much has changed at all.
SCOTT AND SETH AVETT grew up around music — from singing gospel songs in the car on family trips to having pianos at the ready in their childhood home. "Part of being a well-rounded person is knowing something about music," their father says. "There are ways of saying things through music that get a hold of people and won't let go. We started them out on piano because you get the theory and basics of music from it."
The brothers started performing together in the late '90s as a rock band called Nemo. To mellow out after gigs, they'd do back-porch acoustic jam sessions the called the Back-Porch Project. Over time, as the brothers found themselves bringing in more of the old-time country, bluegrass and folk of their childhood, they rechristened themselves the Avett Brothers.
They released an EP, The Avett Bros., in 2000, filled with harmonies, piano and acoustic strumming. In 2002, the brothers added stand-up bass player Bob Crawford and released an eight-song full-length debut, Country Was. The album, which was further steeped in Southern tones with hints of bluegrass, started the "Pretty Girl" series of songs with "Pretty Girl from Matthews," a theme that has run through to the current album. Playing self-booked tours, the Avett Brothers also released Live at the Double Door Inn in 2002, a set of originals and standards including "Cripple Creek" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
The following year, the Avetts put out another studio album, A Carolina Jubilee, which continued the themes of previous releases, with better production, while still trying to capture the energy of its stage show. The trio worked to polish its vocals and get more personal with the lyrics while heading down the same musical path on Mignonette in 2004. Another live album, Live Vol. 2, followed.
"The fact that we did evolve so slowly, we've been given a great latitude to develop as people, writers and musicians," Crawford says. "Scott loves to talk about how we were given a long period of time to make a lot of mistakes — we played out of tune a lot, breaking strings on stage, awkward silences."
Interspersed with a few EPs, the band released another full-length, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions, in 2006, which continued to showcase its folk sensibilities. By this time, the Avetts had established a solid live fanbase in the Southeast and were stretching outward nationally, building up to the addition of cellist Kwon and the release of Emotionalism in 2007. That album thrust national attention on the band, as critics took notice, and landed on the Billboard charts, earning the group its television debut on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
Until then, the Avett Brothers had struggled to find balance between their live shows and albums as they continually tried to recreate their loud and raucous performances in the studio. With Emotionalism, the band began to look at the two differently, writing music for albums and offering a broader textural palette while infusing new energy to the songs on stage.
"There are definitely people who want us to remain the Carolina Jubilee and anything that ventures beyond three guys with a banjo, a guitar and a stand-up bass is not what they want to hear," Seth says. "I completely understand that sentiment and apply it to bands I like, too. I also really believe that it's important to answer the call of the art and follow it into scary places that are true to the calling."
When the band announced its signing to Rick Rubin's American Recordings in 2008, fans feared the grit would be gone under the new sheen of a major-label studio. But while bigger budgets may have brought more control to the live shows and studio recordings, that all-important grit not only remained intact but it also carried more emotional power.
"We had to embrace the fact that it's different," Scott says. "How can you make the studio process great if you're always trying to make it sound like the live process? We've learned a little more about the power of limitations. A little screaming is a little more appropriate within the dynamics of the show than constant full throttle. I think you need to take on a very dynamic, extreme variety of composition. With that comes the scream, comes the whisper and knowing how much is too much of each. "
With the major-label debut of I and Love and You in 2009, the Avetts became more of a household name, their songs heard more frequently on TV and radio. The album peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and got glowing reviews. Fueled by new material, the band returned to regular touring, including a 2011 Grammy Awards show highlight that had them performing alongside Bob Dylan and Mumford and Sons.
EVERYTHING WAS GOING GREAT until the Avetts returned home from a 2011 European tour to find out Bob Crawford's then-22-month-old daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was news that may have derailed a lesser band, but instead inspired new musical depth and an even stronger bond among the extended Avett Brothers family.
"My wife found Hallie in her crib having a seizure," Crawford says. "She called Dolph [Ramseur], our manager, who met us at the airport. He, Scott and I drove to Chapel Hill and Scott was with me all night. I remember sleeping on the floor of a grieving room and Joe Kwon sleeping in a chair. They were all there until the band had to go on tour again. As I look back on that horrible time, the amount and quality of support that came from our organization — that really taught me the true meaning of serving somebody and these guys exemplified it."
Crawford went on hiatus, performing only 10 shows out of the Avetts' 110 over the next year. Though the band was already deep into recording of The Carpenter, the live shows needed a fill-in bassist and the Avetts recruited Paul DeFiglia from Langhorne Slim.
"In my mind, I had to become resolved to the fact that Bob couldn't be there and we had to make the most of it," Seth says. "I had to do my best to forget how much I missed Bob and all that he brings to the table. He recently rejoined us full time and it was like coming up out of the water and taking a big ol' breath of fresh air."
Seth adds that the band will never be the same again. "We left Charlotte as three guys in a van and we bonded during that experience," he says. With Hallie's situation, "we had to go into crisis mode and rise up together to support Bob and the Crawford family. That kind of bond goes well beyond the bond we have as musicians."
Crawford was able to return to the band this August. "It's the kind of thing where people tell you — it's written everywhere from Buddhist texts to the Bible — that you can only take one day at a time," Crawford says. "When you're dealing with a very terrible cancer like she is, we have to deal with the right now, and right now she's doing awesome."
And he's found a new joy in performing: "It's sweeter to be on stage and play music than it's ever been."
It would be easy to look at The Carpenter and its themes of loss and dying and assume it was crafted after the hurdles the band has faced, but most of the writing had been done before the crisis. The album's opening track, "The Once and Future Carpenter," delivers a message of living each day like it could be your last. "If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die," they sing. On "A Father's First Spring," Scott expresses a father's love for his daughter: "I haven't seen you in days, my how that feeling has changed / I have been homesick for you since we met."
"For what it's worth, it made the songs more relevant to us," Seth says. "It furthered the meaning of songs in a lot of ways. The thing with Hallie was the biggest spiritual earthquake, but not the only one. Scott and I have an aunt and close friends battling cancer. Observing death and illness and trying to process it in a way that isn't altogether bad. I'm hoping the record isn't such a buzzkill and downer that people don't want to listen to it. Where I'm coming from, it's not all bad, it's just part of the conversation."
While the lyrical tone of the album may be more somber, it still has some of the upbeat acoustic presentation the Avetts are known for, though the banjo is less prevalent. There's also a harkening back to the Nemo days and the possible opening of a door to future territory on "Paul Newman vs. The Demons." It's a song that might polarize even the strongest of Avett Brothers fans. It opens with yawning feedback and a heavy drum beat courtesy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith combined with plenty of plugged-in electric grit.
"I love Sinatra, but every song can't be sung pretty like Sinatra," Seth says. "I love a lot of music like the Deftones where you have a bit of dirt on it instead of being so clean. Releasing a song like that, I'm aware that it will cause a divide and I hope people will like it."
Rick Rubin, who produced the new album as well as I And Love And You, is the legendary eccentric record exec whose Def Jam Records kick-started the careers of the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and who went on to produce or sign artists as diverse as Slayer, Johnny Cash and Jay-Z. Rubin says he's seen a steady growth in the Avett Brothers since he started working with them nearly five years ago. "The main change musically I can feel has come in the songwriting, which has become more focused, clear and craftsman-like," Rubin says. "I continue to be surprised and amazed by just how deep they go and how they continue to grow as artists."
WHILE THE AVETT BROTHERS explore new territory on The Carpenter, they're also getting back to their roots. Scott Avett and Crawford have started playing old-time music again in their spare time. "To play in front of a few thousand people is exhilarating," Crawford says, "but there's something about playing in front of 50 people in Charlotte — that shared experience is so true."
Jim Avett feels there's no easy way to measure his boys' success. For him, it wasn't signing a record deal or appearing on television. The Avett Brothers made it the day they played at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry — the stage where country music's greatest artists have found their glory.
"Success is a relative thing," Jim says. "When they were playing for 10 people and making $25, they wanted to make $50 and play for 25 people. One of the marks of a life well lived is satisfaction. I don't think you need a lot of money, a lot of a house or a lot of land. You have to be satisfied with what you've got. We tried to encourage all three of our children to do something you're satisfied with."
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