New Music: Seth Avett Sings “Just a Bum”

Listen to an exclusive premiere from the North Carolina musician’s new album honoring songwriting hero Greg Brown

Photo: Courtesy of Seth Avett

So what is a good ol’ North Carolina boy thinking when he records an album of songs by Greg Brown, a relatively unsung singer-songwriter from Iowa? It’s folk music, says Seth Avett. Music for all folks. “I feel like there’s a blue-collar element to Midwestern music that connects with Southern roots music, blues music,” he says over Zoom. “Folk music doesn’t mean it has to be Woody Guthrie. Calypso is folk music. Hip-hop is folk music because it connects to a great number of people.” 

Now seventy-three, Brown, like his more famous Midwestern-raised peer John Prine, is a keen observer of the human condition, a slice-of-life songwriter with a penchant for absurdism. While Seth was on tour with his brother Scott for his regular gig as co-founder of the roots music powerhouse the Avett Brothers, he would set up recording equipment in his hotel room on a day off and play whatever came to mind. Frequently it was a Greg Brown song, and he realized there was an opportunity to showcase Brown’s music to a larger audience with a full album, Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown. “I honestly think Greg is one of the greatest songwriters of the last forty years,” he says. “His lyricism keeps me connected spiritually, and it keeps me connected to this world at the same time. I just wanted to show my love for his music.”

Today, Garden & Gun is proud to premiere the track “Just a Bum,” one of Brown’s best songs, with Avett bringing a more melodic, softer vocal than Brown’s gruffer voice in the original. Listen to the song below, and you can also check out this video of Avett performing the track “Good Morning Coffee” at home in North Carolina. And read on to hear more from him about Brown and songs that speak the truth. Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown is out this Friday, November 4, and available for preorder here.

While you were growing up you listened to a lot of 90s rock, and your early shows were punk gigs, so when did you discover Greg Brown? 

Everything was kind of happening together. I had met Doc Watson when I was 13, and that turned me on to American roots music. And the heavy music and classic rock that I loved was still growing. Kurt Cobain was still alive. But there was something about Greg’s music that felt more immediate and current to my feelings and the poetry of the moment. Whereas when I was discovering Doc, he was still alive and well and killing it, but the music felt of another time.

John Prine had a real renaissance in the years before he passed away, but Greg Brown is still mostly a secret.

He is, and I think there are a lot of factors to attribute that to. One of them is that Greg, I mean, as far as I know him now, it’s hard to imagine him chasing anything. It’s hard to see ambition in him. He’s a natural born sage. He doesn’t have that frantic energy. He doesn’t need attention. His calling was to make music, create things, make records, but I don’t think that he was called in any way to grow his popularity.

And that’s obviously a conscious decision. At some point you have to decide whether you’re gonna go for it and play 150 dates a year, right? 

Absolutely. There’s a question of what you’re comfortable with. We’re in a culture now where self-promotion doesn’t come with shame. I think Greg Brown is putting out, in my opinion, some of the best songwriting in the world, and it is happening under the radar. There’s not a lot of glitz and glamour there. A lot of these songs are six minutes long, seven minutes long, and they’re telling the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth.

Greg has released around thirty records, and I read a review that said even if there’s a song you dislike, there’s probably a line or turn of phrase that sticks with you. 

Totally. I love that he has so many records and that every song isn’t the greatest song you’ve ever heard. But one more lesson that I’ve gotten from Greg is that’s not the point. You can get the same thing from Dylan. You’re making music that is natural and sincere and you can share it if you want, but don’t hold onto it and be so precious about it that you put one record out every twelve years and there’s only nine songs. 

I’ve always thought that the sign of a great songwriter is the ability to write something and have people from all sorts of walks of life and places find something to hold onto in that song. 

Look at Tom T. Hall, man. There’s specificity in some of his writing that makes you wonder how could it possibly be relatable? But it is. Merle Haggard had a few songs where it’s clearly about his life, but it’s not exclusive. It’s inclusive, you know? That’s a special thing. Greg is candid about his life. He’s in his seventies and has seen a lot: heartbreak and pain, suffering and joy. He writes from his own personal story, but he has allowed himself to be a source and a channel for the bigger picture.

What is it about “Just a Bum” that speaks to you? 

“Just a Bum” sort of skates that line of serious and playful. It’s peanut butter and jelly. It’s these great, great flavors, you know, that happen simultaneously. I really love when miserable concepts can be presented in a more joyous way. Greg is one of my great teachers. He’s so unassuming and humble. He’s never received the amount of validation in terms of the success that he should have. I just flat out tell him: “You’re one of my heroes.” And to him, that’s very funny.