The Brothers Avett

David McClister
by Matt Hendrickson - North Carolina - Feb/March 2011

When the music stops, there’s no place they'd rather be than their N.C. home

Click here to watch an original G&G video of Seth and Scott Avett playing "The Weight of Lies."

The road to the Avett brothers’ family home in Concord, North Carolina, snakes through suburbia, passing freshly constructed strip malls and a pristine elementary school. But then the pavement gives way to gravel, the trees become thicker, the distance between houses grows longer. It’s nearly dark, but in the woods behind a weather-beaten farmhouse, the faint notes of a banjo and a guitar can be heard underneath blissful harmonies.

Scott and Seth Avett are sitting on wooden boxes, playing a delicate version of “The Weight of Lies” from their 2007 album Emotionalism for a video crew. Their playing is gentle, but their voices are forceful, confident; voices that were probably honed from years of picking parties with their family and friends.
Except they weren’t. “Bluegrass was never a part of our upbringing,” says Scott, 34, having changed from his old-time “stage gear” to a comfy gray hoodie and jeans. He’s seated at his parents’ kitchen table with his younger brother sipping tea and scarfing down some crackers and cheese. “I just did a two-hour drive listening to this great bluegrass station and I didn’t recognize a song,” Seth, 30, adds. But over the course of ten years, the Avett Brothers have become the preeminent iconic roots rock act in the country, incorporating elements of punk, folk, country, and yes, bluegrass that transcends the limits of any label or genre. The band has gone from playing for ten people in a Greenville, North Carolina, coffeehouse in 2000 to blowing away ten thousand fans at a concert in 2009.

Homegrown

The Avetts’ childhood home was given to their father, Jim, in the 1940s—costing him only “fifteen dollars for a lawyer to draw up the contract and fifty dollars for the deed.” Through the years, Jim has added on to it, giving it a ramshackle, rambling feel, but making it a home whose walls reek with love and camaraderie. The brothers grew up in this house on a sixty-acre plot of land that was also a bit of a hobby farm. Indeed, the kids lived among dozens of cats and dogs and were responsible for the upkeep, gathering eggs from the chickens and feeding the cows and pigs. “When you’re nine years old, staring down a giant pig, you grow up real quick,” Scott says. At their day jobs, Jim was a welder and his wife was a schoolteacher, while the brothers did a lot of manual labor, including welding for their father and landscaping.

Though they play gigs all over the world, home remains the textile town of Concord. “We don’t want to be where all the action is,” Seth says. “We just want to be where we’re from.” On this day, the brothers are enjoying some much-needed downtime sandwiched between wrapping up a major tour on Halloween in Nashville and embarking on a winter jaunt on which they will play a number of shows, including a sold-out performance on New Year’s Eve at the Asheville Civic Center. “I just want to live someplace modest, and North Carolina is home,” Scott says. “The chains that I thought were holding me back were actually arms that brought me back when I wanted them to.”

Despite the absence of bluegrass, music was definitely a key part of the brothers’ upbringing. Jim—who is a musician in his own right, just releasing an album of country tunes—encouraged each of them to take piano lessons and kept a box of old eight-track tapes with albums by Three Dog Night, John Denver, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan at the ready. The brothers also delved into early ’80s albums from Men at Work, Hall & Oates, and Michael Jackson.

Occasionally, friends of their parents would come over and play guitar, drink, and smoke. “I definitely remember more Coors Light being drunk than playing,” Scott says, laughing. “There were these guys who wore leather jackets and looked like Kenny Rogers sitting in the living room.” While their parents and friends jammed to Hank Williams and Tom T. Hall, the boys were drawn to heavier music.

“A cousin of ours was a big Rush fan and he’d take us up into the bedroom and play drums,” Scott adds. “That was the dark side.” Moving on from mid-’80s metal, both gravitated to punk bands. “There were a lot of influences running parallel with those bands,” Seth says. “We were also listening to Blind Willie McTell. But nothing like Flatt and Scruggs—we wouldn’t even recognize their music. We would never say Flatt and Scruggs as an influence.”
 

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