The day has come, the sun will shine, and you’ll be fine…day #4–the final day. I hope that you still have a hefty appetite, because today is going to be the most deliciously delightful Avett sandwich you ever did set your sights on! Hearty, earthy, made in NC good ol’ native son bread stuffed full of all of the grooviest meats and fixins you could imagine. Let’s start building our Sunday Sandwich…
Last night’s late jam may have zapped your stores, so give yourself the gift of sleeping in a bit. Just make sure you head over to the Creekside Stage by 12:30 for your first slice of Avett–Jim Avett that is. Sunday “mornings” with Jim (and family sometimes) have become a MerleFest tradition. Jim will be sharing some of his new songs off of his latest release, “Take it from Me,” as well as some of his greatest stories. The space between songs is a real treat for those who love some good ol’ advice and life-lessons from a good ol’ country gentleman.
When I first took a listen to Maybe April, I couldn’t help but pick up on an Edie Brickell meets Jewel vibe, and I was digging that throwback sound with a modern country spin. This Nashville-based trio will wow you with killer three-part harmonies and unapologetic songwriting. Imagine them the mango jalapeño jam of your sandwich–an initial sweetness matched by a delayed punch in the senses–unexpected, yet appreciated. Head over to the Americana Stage at 1:45PM for a little taste.
At 2:40PM The Steep Canyon Rangers will hit the Watson Stage to present the The North Carolina Songbook–a tribute set to the Tar Heel State’s thick and comforting musical heritage.These seasoned festival vets know how to fill you up with so much amazing music, your hunger will be satisfied. This is a Doc-approved set that will celebrate the state and be talked about for years to come.
And of course, it goes without saying, you’ll need to top that sandwich off with another slice of Avett to really get the full sensory experience. The boys are back to close things down and send you all home on a high note. They take the Watson Stage at 4:30PM, so don’truin your appetite too early–save room for our favorites–The Avett Brothers!
For many festivarians, each year is greeted not only with new wishes for success, health and prosperity, but also with a child-like giddiness as they await the first signs of music festival lineup teasers and announcements.
Whether longing for the lush, legendary landscape of Mountain Jam, the boho-chic vibe of Coachella, the gritty soul of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival or the harbor breeze of Newport Folk Festival–there is certainly a festival out there for any and all musical tastes. While the overall feel, location and extra perks may entice festival goers to consider buying that multi-day festival ticket package, it really is the lineup that seals the deal.
So, what exactly goes in to putting together a stellar festival lineup? It certainly doesn’t just appear out of thin air. On the contrary, planning and confirming a multi-day, multi-stage music festival lineup often involves a dedicated and innovative team of people who start reaching out and booking artists over a year in advance.
A lineup for everyone…
To learn a bit more about the process, EOAF caught up with Lindsay Craven, the newest Artist Relations Manager for MerleFest–North Carolina’s premiere music festival. Now in its 32nd year, MerleFest continues to stay true to its “traditional plus” and family friendly roots. Craven credits the late, legendary musician and festival founder, Doc Watson, for laying the groundwork and creating a culture that celebrates all types of music, not just that of the western NC region.
“We’re very thankful to Doc, for developing that phrase [traditional plus]. And, it’s very much what Doc did. Doc’s music wasn’t restricted to bluegrass or blues, and he loved everything. He wanted us to share all kinds of music with people,” Craven said.
After over three decades, “traditional plus” remains the driving force for anyone in charge of booking artists and filling out the four-day festival schedule across 13 stages. By bringing in the industry’s best in traditional Appalachian and Bluegrass music, in addition to Americana, Folk, Rock, Blues, and Gospel, MerleFest appeals to a wide, diverse audience that travels to the great Tar Heel state in late April every year. The diversity of genre and dedication to keeping the festival family friendly really set MerleFest apart from other big festivals.
“With audiences that aren’t familiar with the festival, I think a lot of people just say we’re just a Bluegrass festival, or that we’re just old-timey country music and it’s just not the case at all. We have those things, but we have lots of others. The traditional plus motto is far from one musical genre. You’d be hard pressed to be any kind of music fan and come to MerleFest and not find something you like,” Craven said.
Though she’s worked part-time for MerleFest in some capacity for over a decade, Craven was hired into this full-time position in July 2018, and has been non-stop ever since. Craven worked directly under previous Artist Relations Manager–Steve Johnson–learning first hand the enormous amount of work that goes into setting a lineup.
“Steve knew during last year’s festival that he was going to be moving out. So, he did a lot of work ahead of time to help us stay on track and not start from way behind…we’re really appreciative to him for everything he did to make sure it was kind of a seamless transition, as much as it could be,” Craven said.
While Johnson did a great deal of work leading up to his departure, the business of booking artists and setting a lineup can often feel like watching the shifting sands of The Outerbanks. The landscape can change daily, and early plans do not always stay in place.
“A lot of our headliners changed from the original plan just because of scheduling conflicts, money not working out, and things like that,” Craven said.
Though green in this particular position, Craven had to solve some significant problems in her first few months. By all accounts, it looks as if she took the proverbial bull by the horns and accepted the challenge, because this year’s headliners are superb–The Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Amos Lee, Wynonna and The Big Noise–along with heavy-hitters like Keb’Mo’, The Milk Carton Kids, and Tyler Childers. Let us not forget the MerleFest alumni, who fans return for year after year–Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Kruger Brothers, Scythian and more.
“[The most challenging part of booking] is competing with the amazing number of music events and venues in North Carolina now. Just trying not to overlap artists that the same audience can see in five different places within a year. It’s fantastic that there are so many music venues and there are so many music festivals. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just a huge thing to compete with when planning said festival,” Craven said.
Let the fans be heard…
Artist Relations Managers, also often called Talent Buyers, rely not only on their team to help build out a lineup, but also on the festival fan base. Social media platforms have changed the way fans and artists can communicate directly with festival organizers.
“I pay attention to [the artists’] social media pages to see what kind of following they have. We listen to their music. We pay attention to our own social media, too, to see what people are asking for,” Craven said.
Festival organizers often post teasers or clues leading up to the initial lineup announcements, to get the fan base excited. At least for MerleFest, the responses that come out of those teasers become important in terms of current or future lineups.
“Since this is my first year in this particular job, I’ve really been paying attention with each announcement–what people were guessing right before we made the announcement, and then what they hope to see on the next announcement. If we don’t have [the artists] on the docket already, I make sure I make a list of those people and consider those for going forward,” Craven said.
Painting the canvas…
Outside of fan feedback, Craven and her team search for talent through different music association awards and conferences–namely the Americana Music Awards (AMA’s) and International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) annual conference, respectively. Additionally, there is a longtime running “wish list” that has trickled down from each former artist relations manager that now sits in Craven’s hands.
“In the beginning, it’s just kind of an open canvas. We are just looking at our wish list and looking at the chatter from other events, saying ‘what seems to be doing well?’ and seeing if would fit for us and fit our budget,” Craven said.
As that canvas fills up, other elements–like spreading genres across multiple stages–begin to factor in to the planning equation.
“As we get closer to festival time, it gets a little more scientific in trying to see, well, [this artist] has to go on this stage so we kind of want more of this flavor of music,” Craven said.
According to Craven, MerleFest artists fall into one of three main categories, “the ones that are here every year, the headliners, and the people we have fresh and new every year.”
Communication with artists can take many forms, and this typically depends on the level of artist/band success and/or the longstanding relationship with the festival.
“We have some artists that are here year in and year out, and most of those artist we communicate directly with. The bigger artists–The Avetts, Brandi, Amos–we talk with their agents initially, and then the tour manager for sure. We rarely talk to them directly,” Craven said.
Much of Craven’s work involves reaching out to the agencies that have worked with MerleFest in the past to learn about up and coming artists. They discuss budget and schedules and try to see if it will work for all parties involved. The final MerleFest lineup boasts over 100 artists, not including those who have been invited to compete in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.
“It’s a big job,” Craven said.
And a big job requires a big budget in order to pull in the best artists and to ensure smooth operations from start to finish. The MerleFest budget is determined year to year by past and projected attendance. Interestingly, MerleFest is a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, further strengthening the symbiotic relationship between the festival and college.
Though Craven’s main responsibility is to direct the booking process, the work doesn’t stop once the contracts are signed on the dotted line. With the lineup set and about a month to go, Craven is currently busy with the artist relations portion of her job–hotel reservations, merchandise, direct communication with artists, and coordinating schedules.
A path to MerleFest…
So, how did Craven get to sit in her current position–perhaps a little luck, certainly a lot of working up through the ranks, and an immeasurable amount of drive and good old-fashioned love for the work. A journalism major and graduate of Appalachian State University (App State), Craven always had a spark for the entertainment industry.
“I always thought I was going to be an entertainment writer. That was my initial goal. The funny thing is, I guess it was in middle school, I think we were doing some school project where we had to decide what we want to be and [we had to look] through these books that had all kinds of different job descriptions and what you needed to do to go to school to become that. There wasn’t an artist relations, it was artist representative, or something along those lines, and that was what I did my school project on,” Craven said.
So, when she decided to apply to App State’s artist management program, it seemed like a good fit, until she learned she had to be a music major.
“It wasn’t an option to pursue that particular degree. But, I kind of fell into anyway,” Craven said.
Falling into this role, sounds a bit passive, when actually her path to MerleFest has been more than just being in the right place at the right time. During her undergrad years, Craven was proactive in getting involved in local opportunities that aligned with her interests and skills. A simple perusal of the internship listings on App State’s website seems to have been the catalyst to pave the way.
“I started with [MerleFest] as an intern in 2007, and then came back again as an intern in 2008. And then after I graduated, I filled in throughout the year whenever they needed extra help. In and around credential time, or around some announcements and things like that, they need an extra body in an office to get some information from artists. And every year I’m here for the festival working in the artist relations trailer,” Craven said.
Her MerleFest experience over the next several years, led her to the Yadkin Arts Council, where she worked as their Executive Director.
“I did all of the booking for our theater there, for the last five or six years. It’s a very, very small staff. So, due to all of the experience I gained from basically wearing all of the hats at that theater, that’s what got me to the point where I was qualified enough between what I’d learned working [at MerleFest] and what I learned working there, that they felt that I would work in this role,” Craven said.
From MerleFest to Yadkin Arts Council and back to MerleFest, Craven positioned herself to be both primed by those who came before her and primed by her own career ventures to succeed in her new role.
A bit of advice…
Somewhere, there is an eager, starry-eyed middle schooler writing a paper about the glamorous life of an Artist Relations Manager. Craven, having put in over a decade of hard work–both paid and unpaid–can offer some sage advice to those who may wish to follow in her footsteps.
“Work for any and every opportunity. This all came about just because I was looking at internship listings on the App State website. Look local. It doesn’t always have to be the biggest thing. You don’t have to be working stage-coach for Bonnaroo. You can start small and there are so many small festivals out there right now,” Craven said.
Opportunities are not always paid, and those are often the ones that get a foot in the door.
“[Festivals] are looking for young talent with energy to volunteer and help. And that is important. You have to be willing to volunteer. You’re not going to get paid right away or probably for a very long time. But, if you stick with it, you’re going to make connections. If you are hard-working and dependable, people are going to see that and when something comes available, they’re going to be looking to somebody that they can trust and count on,” Craven said.
Having a genuine love for and understanding of music and the festival scene and showing up year after year are important elements that have translated into a successful career trajectory for Craven.
“You don’t have to listen to every single artists on the docket, but you should at least have a desire to know and appreciate the music you’re presenting,” Craven said.
Making her mark…
Aside from booking talent, Craven has also been very focused on observing the vast number of traditions that take place each year at MerleFest. While she is excited to make her mark on the 2020 lineup, her experience with MerleFest has taught her the importance of maintaining the festival’s rich and cherished traditions. From coordinating the Veteran’s Jam and Mando-mania to planning outreach performances at 17 Wilkes county schools, Craven’s job goes beyond what the main lineup schedule indicates.
“There are lots of individual things that go into the festival that aren’t just what you’re seeing on the stages. I’ve got to learn what things happen year in and year out, so I make sure I build those in and don’t mess with any of our traditions,” Craven said.
With tradition comes a level of expectation, in particular from those artists who have made MerleFest an annual event over several years.
“We don’t want to offend any of the artists that have been with us a long time. We value them. We want to honor what they do and continue to bring new and interesting things for people to see. I am just trying to make sure I learned lessons before I get super deep into putting a schedule together. Right now, I am getting through the first festival and making sure I know as much as I can before I dive head first into throwing a ton of offers out,” Craven said.
MerleFest 2020 will be Craven’s first full run in this position, and she already planning out how her workspace will function best to match her visual mind–giant empty versions of the stage schedules plastered across her walls with an endless supply of dry erase markers and sticky notes.
“I have to see it all out in front of me. It’s easier to look at one big wall of things as opposed to 20 pages over four days,” Craven said.
One can imagine the thrill Craven will feel as she begins to fill the empty time slots for MerleFest 2020. Orchestrating such a beast of a production with so many moving parts is not for a disorganized mind. It takes creativity, imagination, and the ability to envision how the whole experience will translate into something greater than the sum of its many parts. With that creative freedom comes a heavy responsibility to also maintain the elements that make MerleFest such an amazing festival.
“I really don’t think that there’s anything more that I would add to the festival. I really feel like our goal is to not work on getting bigger, but keeping our event the best quality that it can be. If at some point an opportunity presents itself, that we could expand something or create something new, we’re never opposed to those kinds of opportunities. But, it’s not something I’m actively looking to do right now. We’re more focused on just making sure we keep it top-quality and keep all the things that people expect from it,” Craven said.
Once the dust settles from MerleFest 2019, Craven will be right back at it, standing wide-eyed in front of her blank canvas with that same child-like giddiness music fans experience when a lineup unfolds before them. It is evident that Craven’s unique journey through the MerleFest ranks has prepared her to excel in this position for years to come, and it will be exciting to watch lineups evolve across her tenure.
For more information about lineup and tickets, please visit Merlefest.org.
Are you headed to MerleFest this year? If so, download your MerleFest ’19 app for Apple or Android to make your experience even better!
Six years ago I was waking up in Charlotte wishing I could relive the previous night. I, along with a small group of friends and strangers, were treated to an evening of storytelling and art by Scott Avett. While Avett is best known for his songwriting and musical prowess as co-frontman of The Avett Brothers, he also wears other creative hats. That evening, donned in all black, Avett–proud, yet introspective–opened up about his journey as a visual artist. As we sat, surrounded by what felt like a lifetime of his paintings, charcoal sketches, and linolium prints, we listened and watched intently as he spoke. The event–The Paintings of Scott Avett: Exploring Story and Spirituality–was about more than gaining a glimpse into the world of someone we admired. It was about raising awareness for the Educational Center in Charlotte. It was about personal expression and the spiritual journey that we are all on, regardless of if we recognize it or not. It was about community.
Since that evening, Scott has participated in similar, intimate events–whether it be to discuss his music, visual art or both. These events are designed to keep people close, to stir emotions in a relatively small space. While they appear exclusive, that is not the driving force or goal. The ripple effect that occurs after such events–the spreading, sharing and intermingling of ideas–is akin to the root system in a forest. It is sustaining and strong. It connects and grounds us. While most of Avett’s fans will never experience him in this type of forum, he has begun to share his artistic process with those who are interested. Through social media, Avett reveals the evolution of a painting or print, the development of color, the depths of shadow, and the complexities of the world around him. His most recent progression–like many of his paintings–is centered on his family and the interaction and energy of generations.
source: @avettar instagram
In the spirit of community, connectedness and inclusivity, here is the transcript from that magical evening six years ago (2/26/2012). While the feelings evoked in the moment can not be reproduced by these words, perhaps the stories told will push that ripple a bit further beyond its current limits. Enjoy…
Shelia Enis: The center is over one hundred and sixty years old and it all began when someone left a baby on the doorstep of at St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis. The woman of the church took the baby in, so the center started as an orphanage and was called The Church Association for the Relief of Orphans and Destitute Persons. That was in January of 1843. The first year they admitted three more children and the budget for that year was $37.75. So obviously the church association was concerned with the physical and mental well being of the children. They also became concerned about their spiritual lives and religious education. The entire history is very fascinating. What came out of this is a research center and spiritual education that has been nationally acclaimed a pioneer in research of religion education, particularly in the methodology called miutic, which is the Greek word for midwife and it means as a teacher or facilitator. You are not the authority. You simply help another person work what that person may already know. The thing that we do is to create curriculum resources and events and retreats to enrich people’s spiritual journey. We deal with life questions that have no answers. The goal, the vision and mission behind the center is that we all evolve spiritually and psychologically and socially and that we become conscious along the way.
Tilly Tice (President of Board of Directors of the Educational Center): Who would have thought that two and a half years ago when I got a call from Shelia Enis saying we really need to move The Educational Center to Charlotte, North Carolina instead of St. Louis because the crux of the support for the center is really in the Carolinas, particularly in Charlotte. I never would have thought that an event like tonight would come to be. It is just incredible to me that this event was actually bestowed upon us by the insight of Shelia and Tom. Of course I knew about Scott Avett. I knew about his music, but that Scott himself might make himself available and his remarkable artwork as a catalyst for a benefit for the Educational Center was never even in a seed in the pod of possibilities that I saw. And had it not been for Shelia and the fact that she had the realization that we need to move from St. Louis to Charlotte. Had she not been married to Tom Schultz, who had become such a wonderful supporter of the Educational Center. Were it not for the fact that Tom happened to be owner of a gallery empathinc and met Scott Avett, none of us would be here tonight. Do I believe in synchronicity? Absolutely, without a doubt. You can bet I do and Tom and Shelia recognized it. The better they got to know Scott, the more deeply convinced they were that, ‘Hey this is a fella who is very much about the same kinds of things the Educational Center is about. Here is someone else who is committed to moving beneath the layers of human stories, of personal history and experiences to discover deeper levels of spiritual reality and knowing.’ On behalf of the board of the Educational Center I express my warmest gratitude to Tom and Shelia, for the genesis of this evening and for all of the energy, time, and effort that has gone into the development of the evening. They called together one of the best planning teams that you could imagine. (Multiple thank yous). Last and most important, most deeply appreciated…the man himself Scott Avett. Scott recognized also as Tom and Shelia talked to him about the educational center and the work we do, that we had much in common. Our work using varying arrow in all sorts of different forms, is also Scott like your work, connecting to the spirit lying in the center of all of us. You made a stupendous commitment to come to us and be the center of this benefit. How do we say thank you when the words “thank you” will never be adequate? Your gift to us is of yourself and your sacred artistic expression is beyond mere words.
Tom Schultz: I am glad you all could come over tonight. I met Scott in 2003 when he wandered into my studio and asked if he could hang a few paintings up. So, I knew that he had a little band, which nothing much has changed if you were able to convince yourself that the Grammy award stage was a bar and Bob Dylan was your bartender. I could go there. I want to talk a little bit about these paintings. I’ve spent a lot of time with these paintings. I’ll tell you a story. I have a dog, Olive, and I walk Olive every night at 10 o’clock. I meet people. Some of you here have met Olive. We are on the lookout for unusual things. Last Fall we were walking in Elizabeth, with the skyline of Charlotte visible to us and Olive stopped. I’ve learned to stop when Olive stops and see what she’s looking at. Well there was a two-point buck and a doe that were walking across the asphalt, and disappeared into someone’s yard. I thought that wildness in this sophisticated urban area was a juxtaposition. It was just a marvel for me. So, let me tell you about these paintings. When you see the color under the arm that is painted so deftly, you are dealing with something wild that is also sophisticated. When you see one brush stroke that defines an entire toe so clearly and succinctly, you are looking at something wild that is also sophisticated. I often compare Scott’s work to writers like early John Steinbeck. Sometimes I think that there’s an air of grit to the reality that he portrays. There is a bit of wildness in sophistication. I hope you recognize that and after looking at these paintings, accept Scott’s invitation to you to find the wildness in you that’s wrapped up in your sophistication. My son Isaac, who is also a painters, tells me that when I like someone’s art work I say, “Yeah they can paint.” But when I really love someone’s art work I say, “That make me WANT to paint.” So Scott I am going to ask you to wrap this up man, because I want to go paint. Ladies and gentlemen, Scott Avett.
Scott Avett: First of all let me say thank you to Tilly and the Educational Center for having me and allowing me to do this. For reading the mission statement with a mission of the EC and the importance and the power that they imply and put on story as a tool for spiritual enlightenment and seeking, seems right in line with what I do, and what my brother and our brothers do. I’d also like to say thank you to Shelia and Tom, with all of my heart, and the committee called Team Avett. Some of the other Team Avett that we have with our band, well I don’t want you all to get into anything (laughter)…Thank you so much for making this happen.
When I think about this location here, Charlotte, South Charlotte in particular, I think about this story every time. This year, different from the talk that Shelia and Tom saw me do, I told myself, “You know I am not going to write anything. I’m not going to think about anything. I’m not going to plan anything.” And so for the past four months I kept this discipline of being really lazy (laughs) and not planning anything. And so, here’s my lead-off story. I just figured that the story is so important. Any lesson and anything that is important within the story, it’s implied as the Educational Center implies as well. And it says it directly that we are, and I am not really any kind of authority, and I can’t even pretend to be. I have been butting my head against the wall a lot of my life trying to be an authority of certain things and every year that goes by I realize how ridiculous that is. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like 10 years from now.
But, being in South Charlotte makes me think about meeting these girls in high school at the beach. And exchanging numbers with them – me and some friends of mine from Concord – and coming home from the beach and preparing to come to Charlotte with this friend of mine to meet these girls and take them on, not a date, but an outing because it was during the day. Now, coming from Cabarrus County, we were soccer players and we’d come to South Charlotte to play soccer tournaments and soccer matches, and we were destroyed every time. I mean, on and on, from when I was a little kid playing rec to high school and getting beat like 19-1, 14-2 (points). There’s one of them back there right now. That was my interaction and dealings with South Charlotte, other than it being this mansion on a hill place. I remember going through there seeing houses that I thought, “Nobody knows the people who live in those houses. Nobody does.” I don’t know if people do live in those houses. Do they ever come out and the people who do come out, do they live in those houses? They seemed so far away from the road literally and also metaphorically. So anyway, that was my experience with South Charlotte. So in preparation to go pick these girls up that we met at the beach on an outing, I decided, “Well, soccer is popular in South Charlotte.” There are really good soccer players there, so I’m thinking, I’ll wear a World Cup t-shirt. (laughs) You know the World Cup t-shirt with the soccer ball with the planet on it. I thought, “Oh this is good, this is good.” So, I’m a shoe guy so I am thinking, “What shoes should I wear?” Well I had these blue puma indoor soccer shoes, and they are suede. I realized today just thinking about this “I had blue suede shoes!” (laughs) So to complete the look I go to the drawer and get my Umbros–my blue Umbros. So I’ve got my sort of World Cup America look going on. And anyone who knows what Umbros are, they are like wearing boxers in public. It’s like this new fad where some people wear pajamas in public, and I’m like, “Uh, it’s kind of crazy!” So anyway, we hand-picked a friend of ours who had a convertible because we thought that would be pretty cool. So it was me and this farmer friend of mine and a guy we thought was kind of uptown from Concord, who lived on Union Street so he was more city-oriented. We went up and met these girls and I mean, I am sure during the day I was like, “This is going okay. That look that they gave me when I walked through the door wasn’t that bad.” Looking back on it, they were nice. They went out with us and probably chose a place where they wouldn’t see any of their friends. I remember thinking that I didn’t really hear back from them so I guess it didn’t really go so well. But now looking back I just appreciate their sympathy (laughs).
But as I thought about that story, it led me on to think about the differences between going up in Charlotte and growing up in Cabarrus County. I was thinking about the perspective I had and the forced need to use my creativity. Being in the woods for long hours with nobody else, and fashioning toys and guns out of branches…My point is that being around less people, other than family –my brother, sister, mom and dad– we didn’t have any neighbors at the time. It got me thinking about the things that we did and the things that were forming us and the things that were growing meaning in our lives–the experiences that we had, with the push and the pull and the conflicts that we encountered. And it made me think about this story that happened maybe a year before I came here dressed as a soccer player for a day (laughs). I thought about the trouble that I could get into in Cabarrus County and the space that you had and the opportunities that you had to really wreck some shop really. I remember a friend of mine coming to me and saying (he was an older friend…I was a freshman and he was a senior). His name was Ryan. Ryan had a girlfriend named Katrina. He said, “We need to steal Katrina Avenue, the sign. It is going to look good for me to have this sign.” I was 14 years old and so I said, “That sounds like a great idea.” You aren’t a burglar if you are stealing from the government, right? There was just something about it that felt okay. (laughs). So we employed another friend of ours, another Scott, who was also a 17 year old. We agreed that Friday night we would go steal Katrina Avenue. So we went out Friday night. We had all of this open space and much less people. We started the night early to get Katrina Avenue, but it was very difficult and we didn’t have the right tools so we gave up on it. But we decided we would just carry on the rest of the night and we will steal some other signs. I mean this is 14 years old, in a car by myself with these guys just looking for trouble. So, we agreed that Scott and Scott would be dropped off at a stop sign at a golf course, and that we will steal the stop sign since we can’t get the street sign. We would just push it down and take the stop sign. So, we agreed that the little Honda that Ryan was driving would drive around the neighborhood and head back once we had the stop sign, and we would get in. I remember him driving away and it was really moonlit out there and as the car was just scooting off, the sign comes down and we were there with our tools and there was just something thrilling about taking this sign down in this neighborhood, this golf course neighborhood. You know we’re getting one for the team. So, Scott and I start working on this sign. We pushed the sign down and we’re working around this with our ratchet. We’ve got a ratchet and adjustable screw drivers and wrenches just in case. Ryan’s gone, he’s going to be gone for a couple of minutes. I heard some of this rustling around at the ranch house across the street and I knew the family that lived over there somewhere. But we’re still working. It got kind of quiet and we heard just a huge “KABOOM!” I was like, “What is that?!” That was a car backfiring. Somebody’s over there and they cranked their car and it backfired. I actually had a buddy that had a Jeep and we would drive around Concord and downshift so it would backfire and scare people. So, I am instantly thinking that the car backfired because that’s something we do in Cabarrus County. (laughs) With that we both decided that we were going to head Ryan off at the path and we are going to go ahead and get out of here. So we go out in search of the car and here comes Ryan in the little Honda and hop in. And I am the youngest so I have to get in the hatchback (scrunches his body into a ball), because it’s a two-door. Well we go around and end up at a dead end, and we have to go back to where we heard the car backfire. We had to drive back by there and we were kind of scared because we knew someone was out there. So we all decided that we were going to cruise by there and everybody agreed that we were going to drive slow, cruise by and we didn’t see any sign, we would be good. They probably called the police so we were going home. This was really dumb so let’s just go home. So we are cruising along and I was crunched up in the back looking through this foggy window and as I look I see this guy behind a chain linked fence. I just see someone pacing then all of a sudden there was glass breaking and the KABOOM again, and it was like, “Pa-ching-ching!” (high pitched noise of a ricocheting bullet). And a bullet goes through the front door panel of the car and through the center console of the car and through the laces of the Converse All-Stars that Scott’s wearing. And it pops the laces. It doesn’t go through his foot, just through his shoe. Of course everyone in the car, Scott and I broke out in a giggle because we were terrified. We were hysterical. Ryan drops his head and just drove. Of course the police were on their way and of course the man who had shot at us had called the police as well so there was a strange thing going on there. So we get taken in and we get arrested. I am 14 years old so the police officer obviously knows that I am going to tell. (laughs) And I did tell the whole story and I sold them all out. To think that that glass in the room was just a mirror and everyone else in the room watching and thinking “Just tell them we weren’t there.” I spent 4 or 5 hours at the police department and at the end my dad comes and picks me up. My dad talks to the police a little bit and we walk out. They are like “Okay, goodnight, we will see you at court.” As he picks me up the first thing he says is “I need to go to the grocery store. I need some bread. Mom needs some bread.” I said, “Ok.” He said, “I think I want some gum too.” I said (laugh), “Ok.” So we are on the way to the grocery store and I said, “Dad I guess I’m really, really in trouble.” He said, “Son, I think we are going to lower your curfew a little bit and you are going to be in all sorts of trouble with the judicial system so there’s no point in grounding you. What am I going to do? I’m not going to whoop you. You are terrified right now, as you should be. You are going to make these mistakes, and I just don’t want you to get killed along the way. You’re going to get hurt and I don’t want you to get hurt beyond repair.” How lucky was I to have gone through that. I mean it was just a mindless thing to do but at 14, especially 14 for a boy, mindlessness is like growing hair I guess. It’s something that we have a lot of or are starting to have a lot of. So I ended up having 24 hours of community service, and I marked it as an experience that changed my life. I never vandalized and I never went on a vandalizing outing again, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It was a ridiculous thing to do. But, I think at that moment, not just my dad’s wisdom or my dad’s experience, that was the only thing that showed me that I should listen to it.
What happened next over the years, at 15 my relationship with me and my dad grew closer and stronger in his invitation to work with him on the bridges he was building. My dad was a welder. He is still a welder, but is now retired from it. He invited me at 15 years old to come work with him as a laborer on the bridge, which I don’t’ think I wanted to do but I felt like I needed to or I would be a failure if I didn’t step up to the challenge. So it was not for anything that he had done. This was just a feeling from within. So I went work with him on the first job on Independence Blvd. For some reason, that story that I just told led to this and two incidences on the bridge. The first day I went to work with my dad I remember hammering to beat down this piece of metal to get it prepared to weld, and I remember this is the first job I was ordered to do and I am swinging this thing and I let that thing rip right out of my hand. I just see this hammer headed down to Independence Blvd and cars just flying back and forth and it lands right there at the white line. Cars are still just going back and forth. I’m like, “Okay, cool.” So nobody saw it and I am like this (acting like nothing happened) (laugh). So, I was done with the hammering and had to move on to the decking. And decking was like this long and this tall and it’s steel, it’s pure steel, and it’s heavy. I am 15 so I am moving through them really fast and I do like 40 of them–taking them in popping them down, taking them in popping them down. I am thinking this is great. Dad’s going to come over and tell us we can leave soon. It’s getting late in the morning and he’s going to take me to lunch. You know, I’m the bosses son! I am just worn out and getting dizzy you know (laughing). He says, “Alright you guys got it I will see you later in the day.” I’m thinking well I guess I am staying for the rest of the day. At 15, I am looking back and thinking about this bridge work and thinking about being up there on that bridge and thinking about my own kids and sending them out on the bridge and thinking, “Wow, you know, talk about letting go.” But it’s the right thing to do.
Later in my experiences with my dad on the bridge, I would still be laying deck out and the trick is that you have angled iron between and there are lips or L-shapes that you are throwing the decking down between and you are just throwing them down and you go. So you pop a couple in as you go, and then you come back and screw them all out and secure it and the concrete goes down. Well Dad’s rule was consistency. You keep 55 mph for 8 hrs you get farther than if you do 75 then 45 then 75 then get a ticket 85, get another ticket, get arrested. You know you’d take a couple days to get where you are going. So what he said was to do one piece of decking at a time. Put one piece down, put a screw in it, and then put another piece down. Me and the guy that I was working with felt like we knew enough that we’ll put two down and we will fly through this. So we are putting two down and I’d put the screw in. The thing about putting two down is that you have one foot on the angle and one foot on the decking. Without screws in it, you could just do this (acts it out) and it would slide out from under you. You’ve got 30-40 feet beneath you to road. It was unmarked road that wasn’t in use yet. So we are laying out two and I’ve got one foot on an angle and one foot on a piece of decking, and I go to screw it down and it’s going fine. We are cheating the system. We’re cheating Dad’s advice. The guy I am working with sort of kicks the decking to get it in place and before I know it this thing slides out from under me and in a split second all I see is road and concrete and decking falling. I’m falling and one of the pieces of decking comes up and cuts my arm and the next moment I am back up on the angle. Just 30 seconds later and I’m thinking, “Okay, I was just free-falling and I grabbed this piece of rebar and pulled myself up.” I walked back up and I was like, “Cool, I’m not even shaking.” Thirty seconds later I am just shaking and in shock. My dad comes over about another minute later and says, “Okay let’s get back out there.” I’m thinking, “You’ve got to be joking right? You saw what just happened. I’ve gotta collect myself.” That was tough. That was traumatic. He said, “If you don’t come out here now you will never come out here again. You’ll be scared of heights the rest of your life.” So I went back out there. What that story made me think about was, where in the world does this urgency and this work ethic that I know that my brother and I talk about a lot, we actually try to keep it at bay, but where did it come from? As I tell those stories about working on the bridge it’s just no mystery as to where that discipline comes from. It’s the same discipline that told me, “Don’t write down and outline for this talk. It will come to you. Whatever these stories are or whatever you are going to talk about will happen. Nothing wrong could happen so just do it.” So this work ethic grew throughout my life which helps push this need for me to make sure that this gallery is full or a calendar is full or a map is connected and each dot on the map is connected closely and carefully.
After thinking about those stories I started thinking about this thing that I had read – a small essay out of a group of writings called The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin. John Ruskin is a writer who I was introduced to through reading Tolstoy, which has become the centerpiece to my inspirational writing and spirituality and Christianity and understanding. And how it can be misunderstood by so many and mistranslated by so many. But John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, he has an essay called, The Seeing and Feeling Creature, which says that artists are put on this planet to do two things, but in total he’s really describing three things. He says we are here to see, and to feel, and to document. The artist can try to think, but he’s not here to do that. He can try to explain and analyze, but he’s not here to do that. He can go to parties, but he’s not here to party. He can’t. He really can’t. He can go to the bar and pretend that he’s going to sit down and drink with the rest of the guys, but it can’t last long. It won’t last long because as soon as he feels something he has to act on it and move on it. The documenting, which is the third thing in this description and I believe this is true and I understood when I read it, quite a bit. I recall going to parties growing up and even now when you want to be a good time guy, and you want to be there with everyone else and something creeps in and something has to be done. It’s a total curse. And it’s not romantic and it’s really not emotional and it’s sometimes very anti-emotional. Well maybe emotional isn’t the right word, but maybe it’s not passionate in the way people like to describe passion. “Oh he’s such a passionate person. I would love to be around that person.” I doubt you would because you are going to be quickly moved out of the way so that he can get to this documentation. That they must…that they are just robots in trying to make happy, which is the best thing that I can really say as far as explaining why I do the work here that I do.
I didn’t realize that I was a storyteller until I was asked to do this talk and it made me think about it. I didn’t realize that my brother and I, regardless of if I make paintings or not and the pictures made stories, that we were storytellers until I started thinking about it. By default or directly, we are certain storytellers. That’s been something that the Educational Center has taught me. In this one event, I didn’t even know about the Educational Center before, but it’s been an amazing exchange in that regard. But, The Seeing and Feeling Creature hit home for me and when I think about the work ethic that sort of directs me and directs my hands and that directs the work order of the schedule that I feel like I should keep, the “seeing and feeling” philosophy don’t jive so well or work together so well because when you are seeing and feeling everything and you’ve got a schedule to keep and a place to be and some people who need to count on you, you just might not be there, because you might feel something that you have to go take care of. I’ve had this experience where I’ve gotta be somewhere and I am driving, leaving home, and I drive by the farm that’s near my house and I see a horse that had died the night before. As morbid and it will sound, I can’t help that I had to turn around and go get my camera and photograph as much of it as I could. I don’t’ know why. It could sound grotesque to some people, maybe not to a [person] who is going to come and take the horse away, but for most of us it’s kind of like, “Well, why would you want a picture of that?” Well I don’t know, but I do know that when I am standing there taking a picture and being late for my appointment, which may be art related, it’s this weird conflict that is happening. This “seeing and feeling” is actually taking away from the “seeing and feeling” that happened. There is definitely something that’s happened to experience this body that no more soul will inhabit, that it is just this piece of future dirt. That’s real interesting to me. With the “seeing and feeling” and the work ethic, there’s a balance that is ongoing for me and at the moment as I think about what I am called to do and my obligations to the visual and through song and through story, it feels in order. But in the next moment it very well could flip over and find itself off the rails.
This opportunity to speak came at a time where self-awareness is not a big part of my life at the moment. A year ago, when Shelia and Tom were so nice to come see my talk I was still talking about this self-actualization that maybe I heard about in psychology class in high school, and talking about self awareness and still this hope for control of something. The opportunity to do this talk came at a time when self-awareness is relatively ailing for me. That made me think of a story. This year Seth and I were invited to go to a forest fire benefit show in Texas. We got a call from our booking agency that said, “Ray from Asleep at the Wheel is playing as Willie Nelson’s band at this event. It’s going to be Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, The Dixie Chicks and George Straight and you’ve been invited to come and sing with Willie Nelson on stage. It’s going to be a great event. It’s going to be huge! It’s going to be 16-18,000 people all around in the big stadium. It’s sold out and it’s a great opportunity.” It could have been any event for us to go and share the stage with Willie Nelson, we would have jumped on it. So I said that we’d love to and we made the agreement. They came to us and said, “What songs would you like to do?” I said, “Well I think we’d like to do one of our songs, one of Willie’s songs and then a gospel song.” Then they came back and said, “Well, Willie doesn’t do other people’s songs and he only knows two gospel songs.” So we said, “Well, what two gospel songs does he know?” They said, “Well, Will the ‘Circle be Unbroken’ and ‘On a Cloudy Day’.” So we said, “Well okay we will do those two and then we will do one of his, that’s fine.” So we show up that day and they say, “Willie wrote a song called ‘Roll me up and Smoke me when I die’. We’re going to do ‘Roll me up and Smoke me when I die’, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ and ‘On the Road Again’.” It was going to be the grand finale for the show. We were like, “Whatever! We will play it.” Well Ray was on the bus with us and he said, “I don’t even know what key the song is in. He told me “C” but I’ve never even heard the song. We’ll be on stage to play it. It doesn’t look like we are going to get a sound check. Willie won’t show up until 10 minutes before the show so forget about that anyway. So it looks like the first time you are going to be on stage with me or Willie Nelson is when we are going to play.” We were like, “Okay, sounds good.” (laugh). This is like a huge group of people–cowboy hats, trucker hats. You’ve got Lyle Lovett wandering around. The Dixie Chicks haven’t played in 5 years. George Straight has more #1 hits than anybody in history, so this is just a great event. Early, you know the nerves are definitely starting to twist, because I am thinking, “Man I can’t play lead in “E” for ‘On the Road Again’ on the banjo. I’m not even capable of it, and maybe I am in “E” sometimes and maybe I don’t even know!” I am thinking this is going to be crazy. I am not too nervous about going on stage for the first time with Willie Nelson in front of people, that’s okay. But, if he calls on me to do something I don’t know. We are getting close. The stage manager calls us over and it’s almost our big moment. Willie’s doing his thing and the show is amazing. Such a tale, such a road that he’s seen and such a life that he’s seen. We are watching all of this up on stage and the stage manager says, “Look we aren’t doing this ‘Roll me up and Smoke me when I die’ song. The band doesn’t know it, you guys aren’t going to know it, so we’ll just skip it. So ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ and ‘On the Road again’.” I was like, “Cool.” That was like a pound of weight is lifted off and I’m feeling better. We’re waiting and we’re looking at the teleprompter up there and it’s like giving the songs and the setlist and here comes ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ and we’re thinking, OK and he says, “Okay GO!” Seth and I go out there and we are trying to maintain our composure. We get our instruments up and I plug in the banjo and Seth’s plugging in the guitar. Willies’ just looking at us and smiling. They told us, “Willie’s just going to love having you up there. He loves playing with as many people as he can. It’s going to be great.” So he’s looking and he kind of looks over with a question expression on his face. He kind of walks up and he looks down at the banjo and he says, “mumble mumble…what key?” I thought, “Did he just ask me what key?” I said, “Key of G?” and he said, “What song?” There were like 16,000 people and I was like, “Will the circle be Unbroken?” He looked over at Seth and said, “Key of G?” and Seth said, “Yea” and he said, “Well alright!” (laughs). And he’s just like 78 years old and his hands and everything are just ripping it up and so graceful and not missing a note. I’m just watching his fingers just move, and I look over and he’s just grinnin’.
But it was a great experience and it made me think about self-awareness and that 10 years ago when I started on this journey that I am with the music, I probably would have looked at that in such a different way. I would have thought, “How in the WORLD does he not know what song we’re going to play? How in the world does he not know, maybe, where he’s at? (laughs)” That’s not what I thought at all. If I would have attempted that 10 years ago I would have been as ridiculous as I was to steal a stop sign. To even judge that or to even think that I have a right to assess that would be crazy because Seth and I have looked at each other plenty of times and said, “Are we in Ohio?” (laughs). We know where we are, because we talk about it all day. We ate here and talked to everyone that was there. We know the people there by name! It’s just the self awareness of where you are and my point in all of that is there really is much less of a tale or a path that I think about with the work. There’s a little bit of a direction. I really don’t have much faith in a future for it. I don’t really bother with that. I do have faith in the direction, but you know, it’s right now. It’s this moment and I’m going to do what I can to make the next piece and understand why I am making the next piece. When I see something and feel it, I know to go and do it. And I know the things that I don’t think that I did well I try to do them better the next time. That’s pretty much the mathematics to that. And the work, I am careful to walk around and talk about meanings or hidden meanings because I think when I get to try to sound sophisticated or complicated or speak in big words it’s just because I am lying or I just want to hear myself talk. I really don’t want to lie and I really do get tired of hearing myself talk believe it or not. Although I am the one who is usually outside of the bus keeping fans longer than they are wanting. They are like, “You really should go inside.” and I’m like, “Well hold on, you should hear about this one time when Seth was like this…let’s talk about this painting….you want my autograph?!” and they are like, “No it’s okay.” (laughs)
So those are my stories, and I do think that I have learned most importantly that all of these pictures are stories and I do have something to say, I certainly do and I can speak on all of them. But I am really thankful that the Educational Center put that reflective device in front of me to help me realize that WOW, there are a lot of stories here and I need to document them. This life and the facet of stories that are in them being told every moment, in short and in long, it’s a beautiful thing. To think that there is not a spiritual accompaniment, we can all talk about what we know, and it’s jibberish probably, but we all know that there is something we don’t know. I think we can all agree on that.
It has been almost four years since Seth and Scott Avett debuted Rejects in the Attic at an intimate Merlefest songwriter’s workshop. That morning, fans nestled into the 200-seat auditorium with grand hopes that they would witness something truly special. I doubt that any of us were prepared for this song and the palpable heartache that echoed through Seth’s microphone. Once an orphaned sheet of scribbled lyrics buried in a disheveled pile, Seth dusted off Rejects, dismantled it and pieced it back together, replacing Scott’s pain and vulnerability with his own.
As fans, we speculate on what may drive the emotion behind such a heavy song–despair, regret, shame, hopelessness. Though we will never fully understand the twisted path a song takes from start to finish–even when written by two brothers, years apart–it was clear that on that day, as Seth sat with his journal and heart left open for the world to see, the pain behind those lyrics being uttered in public for the first time was fresh and present and very personal.
Seth’s face told a story of sleepless nights and mental anguish. With eyes shut, the weighty lyrics left his lips to find sympathetic ears and sturdy shoulders. Suddenly, we realized that we were there to share the burden. We held our breath and took it in, collectively acknowledging the therapeutic exchange that was unfolding before us. We were not just a passive sounding board that day, but rather a living, breathing levee taking on a flood of emotion. And just when we thought the chairs may buckle beneath us, Seth opened his eyes, looked to the sky and asked us for more. We obliged, hopeful that whatever role we played that day for him allowed those holes of pain to be filled in with new found joy.
As Seth closed the song, an almost embarrassed smile spread across his face like that of a grade school kid who just finished reading aloud his first poem in English class. That bashful authenticity reminded us all that even though we often find ourselves separated from them by a steel barrier or tour bus window, we are all just a bunch of rejects riding through this crazy, beautiful, painful experience together.
I return to this video time and time again. Matt Butcher’s songwriting on this song is beyond exceptional, and Seth Avett’s calming voice and delicate finger-picking make it that much sweeter. The combination is about as close to perfection as you can get.
Sometimes you just have to be blunt about the bands you love. With The Avett Brothers’ eighth studio album out today, Magpie and the Dandelion, brothers Scott and Seth Avett kick the dirt off of their roots and plant a new crop of songs that are fixin’ to take full bloom.
Collectively, Magpie and the Dandelion is a polished throwback that is stripped of cumbersome instrumentation and soundboard tricks, while still maintaining the clean studio sound that comes with a Rick Rubin production–a winning combination. Perhaps Rubin finally decided to step back and let the boys do what they do best–make music.
While this may be the case, it was surprising to learn that Magpie and the Dandelion was recorded around the same time that The Avett Brothers recorded last year’s album, The Carpenter. Side-by-side these albums feel very different. The Carpenter walks the line between grand themes of life and death, while Magpie and the Dandelion returns to the intimate storytelling that has served the brothers well from their humble beginnings.
“Pack the old love letters up. We will read them when we forget why we left here.“
The Avetts aren’t strangers to a brutally honest and moving love letter. They’ve laid out their fears and feelings for listeners several times before in songs like “November Blue,” “If It’s The Beaches,” “My Last Song to Jenny,” and basically every song in the “Pretty Girl” series.
When these earlier songs were written the boys were bushwhacking their way through the early phases of love, often in an emotionally fervent state. Conversely, the songs on Magpie and the Dandelion reveal that the Avetts have moved on to a new, more complicated chapter of love–one that has been forced to withstand the hardships of life on the road, the struggles of caring for a sick child, and the possibility of growing old alone.
There is an authenticity that comes with bearing one’s soul for the world to see—laying out the mistakes, the doubts, the fears. This album continues to propel the story of a band of brothers who have been in the game for over a decade. Now they look back on where they have been, wonder what they may have done differently, and hope to find answers beyond the bright lights of fame.
“Put the sketches and the notes in the box labeled ‘Burn With Furniture’”
The album opens with “Open Ended Life,” a southern rock barn-burner packed with punchy banjo, electric guitar solos, a feverish fiddle, and the bluesy whine of G. Love’s harmonica. As if denouncing “If It’s The Beaches,” the boys light fire to their past–love letters and all–watch in the rear-view mirror as it burns to the ground, and speed away in an old beat-up truck. This track is pure bonfire, beer-drinking, hoot and holler fun, straight from the hills of North Carolina.
“It’s alright if you finally stop caring, just don’t go and tell someone that does.”
On “Morning Song” the mood becomes more introspective and the instrumentation simplified. Piano and drums round out the sound as Scott and Seth sing of the reality that accompanies embarking on life’s journeys alone. The harmonies alone will cut you to the core. With the song’s closing chorus, the listener is flooded with overwhelming emotion, as the beautiful voices of Avett family members sing, “I have to find that melody alone.” “Morning Song” evokes feelings of hope despite despair, and will surely be added to the canon of outstanding folk-ballads that have come from the minds and hearts of these men.
“Whoa oh whoa.”
The Avetts are masters of bending and blending genres. On “Never Been Alive,” Seth manages to layer Pink Floyd’s dreamy “Speak to Me/Breathe” with a Sam Cooke vocal cadence. This combination yields a deliberately subdued ballad that feels trippy, but sluggish at times. Though “Never Been Alive” has been road tested for several years, it remains an underdog, perhaps having not yet reached its full potential.
“Let me see your skeleton, well before your life is done.”
The album’s first single “Another is Waiting” is definitely the most radio friendly folk-pop track of the collection. Full of rambling banjo runs and tight drum lines, “Another is Waiting” speaks to the dangers of any industry that chews up and spits out protégés with little regard. This track’s positive message is sure to translate over radio airwaves to young, impressionable listeners worldwide.
“Bring your love to me. I will hold it like a dandelion.”
During a songwriter’s session at the Newport Folk Festival, Seth was asked how he decides what becomes an Avett Brother song versus a Darling song. With a thoughtful pause, he replied, “I have to actively answer that question every time an idea comes up. I can’t say that I always know, because a lot of times I am surprised at what makes sense for us to present together. But, the Darling songs that end up just becoming Darling songs, they look to me the same way that Scott’s paintings do, as far as this is a singular vision.”
In listening to “Bring Your Love To Me,” it appears that perhaps a Darling song slipped into the pile of 30-plus songs that the band initially brought to Rubin. Hearing fingertips sliding on tinny strings, Seth’s pleading promise to protect a fragile love, and the warm tones of intermittent hums offers fans a little glimpse into what can be expected on the fourth Darling installment.
“I want to be there for you, and when I come home will you still want me to?”
Did someone say “Norwegian Wood?” It’s not the first time that Beatles have found their way into an Avett Brothers’ song. Musical influences unconsciously shape the sound of every band, but what makes “Good To You” unique is that it is a heart-wrenching, honest and emotionally transparent personal account that could have only come from this band. On this piano lullaby, Scott and bassist Bob Crawford share intentions and fears with their families, in light of the fact that their time away from home may come with sobering consequences.
“Part from me, I would not dare take someone in love with me where I’m going.”
“Apart From Me” stands alone as the album’s most jaw-dropping ballad. The songwriting on this track matches that of “Murder in the City,” raw, powerful, and thought-provoking. Scott’s voice tears through the listener’s soul, as his gritty exterior crumbles under the weight of past decisions. Looking back on the pursuit of his dreams, Scott seems to question the path he led his family down over the course of his career. Seth’s delicate finger-picking balances the harsh reality of Scott’s words and the listener is left peering into the wilted spirit of this woeful artist.
“How long can you live in shame and drop a lifelong curse on your own last name?”
Thematically in line with “Good To You” and “Apart From Me,” “Skin and Bones” picks up the pace as the Avetts weigh the pros and cons of the famed artist’s life on the road. There is an irony that emerges as lyrics speak of the “beast” that drives the band down the road farther away from home.
This “beast” has reared its ugly head before, particularly when Scott has discussed how he struggles to find balance between his artistic passion and everyday obligations. At his most recent art talk, Scott explained, “Artists are put on this planet to do…three things. [Ruskin] says we are here to see, and to feel, and to document. The artist can try to think, but he’s not here to do that. He can try to explain and analyze, but he’s not here to do that. He can go to parties but he’s not here to party. He can’t. He really can’t…As soon as he feels something he has to act on it and move on it.” With lyrics like “It’s the tin and the board that keeps me going home, but it’s who I am that won’t let me alone,” it appears almost impossible to tame the artist’s inner beast, thus the push and pull carries on.
“Bring me light from where I thought it was dark. Be the spark that has a chance to light a candle.”
“Souls Like The Wheels” is a welcomed live addition to this studio album. Originally released as a studio track on The Second Gleam in 2008, this live version of “Souls Like The Wheels” features Seth, his guitar, and an amazed audience at The Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, MO last year. Even with the occasional hoot and holler from those fans you’d like to punch for making noise during ballads (in particular the girls who scream “We love you Seth!”…seriously if you are one of those girls, please just stop), this version evokes images of Seth and his HD-35 at the front of the stage in the warm glowing embrace of the spotlight. These are the moments when fans know they are witnessing greatness.
“I’ve got love pouring out of my veins, but it’s all vanity.”
No Avett ablum would be complete without one of Seth’s face-melting electric guitar solos. On “Vanity,” Seth and Scott trade verses, and tackle the ugly truth that underpins our words and actions. Recently, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell joined the band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to put his own rock-god spin on the song, proving that he’s still got the chops that served him so well in the 90s. “Vanity” stands alone in its rock-ballad style, while still contributing to the album as a whole.
“I will seek the approval of no one but you, in love for the changes I take.”
Magpie and the Dandelion closes with “The Clearness Is Gone,” a waltz-ballad previously released as a bonus track on The Carpenter. The Avetts plug in and offer listeners a strong finish to an album that chronicles the band’s journey. Though the band forges ahead into the bright lights, “The Clearness is Gone” contains muted hints of “Oh What a Nightmare.” Perhaps this nod to their former-selves serves as a subtle message to their fans that have started to question the band’s direction. Those fans should trust that deep down inside of these men, there is a screaming Avett just waiting to go berserk, melt into the stage and then dive into a sea of sweaty fans.
“We won’t waste a long goodbye on the smoke or foolish lies that finally passed us.“
Magpie and the Dandelion just feels like home. It successfully bridges the gap between the fan who boasts about being among a handful of people at the 2007 Plan 9Emotionalism record release show and the fan who first experienced the life-altering sound of Avett harmonies on Bonnaroo’s main stage in 2012. The album features more banjo for the bluegrass-loving fans, top-notch songwriting for the lyric-hungry fans, electric guitar riffs for old Nemo fans, and a thoughtful musical progression and growth for the fans that actually appreciate watching these talented men mature and fight to feel comfortable in their own skin. Today, a collective exhale and “thank you” can be heard across the spectrum of Avett fans as they sit down and take in the phenomenal work that is Magpie and the Dandelion.
**For fans that can’t get enough of The Avett Brothers, there is a deluxe Target-exclusive version of Magpie and the Dandelion that includes six unreleased demos off of the album**
Halfway through the second full-day of MerleFest, 200 lucky festival goers nestled eagerly into their seats in Mayes Pit-Cohn Auditorium at Wilkes Community College. Some arrived early to claim front row seats, while others waited in line, hopeful to be let in before the room hit full capacity. The Avett Brothers, Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, were whisked in through a side door and waited patiently in the wings for their introduction. Proud parents, Jim and Susie Avett filed in backstage, and watched as their sons took the stage before a roar of applauds.
For those who were in attendance, this was a chance to ask the brothers any and everything about their songwriting process and style, song themes, production, and evolution. The 45-minute session was filled with copious bouts of laughter, candid banter, and small but noticeable moments of brotherly love. While the workshop focused primarily on songwriting, the band managed to squeeze in 3 acoustic songs, one of which was completely new. This poignant ballad had the audience hanging on each and every lyric that dripped from Seth’s lips, and at the end brought the auditorium to its feet. It was a very special experience that those 200 people will cherish for a very long time. For those who were not fortunate to be there in person, here is the transcript:
(The Avett Brothers were introduced and came out on stage, Seth and Scott with their Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars, respectively, and Bob with his stand-up bass)
Scott: Thank you so much y’all.
Seth: So I thought we were attending a songwriter’s workshop not putting one on. What’s going on? (laughter)
Scott: Ha, come to the festival. We’d like for you to do this workshop before you play. We’re going to start by just playing a song. We would like to talk to everyone as much as we can, because we’ve been to several of these workshops and some of them that we’ve been to, we wish we could have heard more questions. But we are going to start with a song just to warm up with (strumming)…that falls in the singer/songwriter category.
Seth: So, does anyone have a question?
Scott: Yeah, let’s hear it!
Audience member 1: First of all thank you guys for making music. You guys are awesome. Secondly, what was your inspiration for making the song “January Wedding?” That’s my wife and my wedding song, so I just wanted to know what your inspiration was.
Seth: Um, well, outside of the obvious – a wedding in January (laughter). No, that was one that I just wrote…I hate that you are asking a question about one of the more mysterious ones as far as the source, well the theme is pretty obvious. As far as the writing of it, it was one of the rare ones that I wrote very quickly–10 minutes top to bottom. That doesn’t often happen. I’m more of a writer that comes up with an idea, and then studies it and works on it for weeks or months or years.
Scott: That’s for sure (laughter).
Seth: Yeah, I’m kind of studious about it. I’ll set up, you know, the coffee and the notebooks and the computer and just work and work on it. But yeah, just a real life event like most of our songs I guess, are things that we’ve experienced or want to experience, or have learned from or want to learn from.
Scott: Pertaining to that subject, we are pretty guilty of writing straight from the heart sort of, and exploiting our personal lives quite a bit. I mean that is our subject matter most of the time. And [“January Wedding”] would fall into that category. I don’t know anything about the writing process of that song. That’s one that Seth brought. It was in Seth and came out of him. In fact I didn’t even know until now that it was written quickly.
Seth: It took a lot longer to record it.
Scott: But yeah it certainly falls in the category, just like “Murder in the City” of songs that are scary to put out there. For one, they could be embarrassing and for two they could be exploiting someone we love quite a bit, or an emotion that you had or an emotion that someone else had.
Audience member 2: There are so many songs about pretty girls, how do your wives deal with that?
Scott: We just tell them that they are not real (laughter).
Seth: I like that there’s an assumption that our wives listen to our music (laughter).
Scott: I am very thankful to live with a woman who has no idea half the time what I am putting out there. The audience usually knows quicker than they do. Luckily they don’t care.
Audience member 3: How has your process changed from your earlier days? How has it evolved to where now you are recording with Rick Rubin. I read a story early on that as a kid you were writing a song about a chicken (laughter). So how has it changed form then, to your early stuff, to now with Rick Rubin.
Seth: Despite my brother mocking me, I did attempt to write a song about chickens. Scott shot them down and it took me quite a long time to get over that (laughter). Still working on it. How has it changed? Scott and I first started writing songs by…I guess our first real attempts, we were putting them on cassette tapes and mailing them to each other. So that’s changed. We don’t do that anymore. We do some version of that. I think that maybe the process hasn’t changed as much in the writing process, perhaps in the revision process. Perhaps when we get into the studio and we start to realize that stuff works or not works and trying to be more open to letting it change. And also, Scott mentioned a vulnerability in songwriting. It’s sort of realizing when that’s appropriate and when it’s not. We put more emphasis on that now, and try to take ourselves out of the equation, and knowing that we are trying to make something that’s gonna stay even after we’re gone. So we can take some of the embarrassment factor out of it. I don’t think we thought about that as much, early on.
Scott: Personally I don’t sit down and write in sessions until there’s something that we’re working for like a recording or group of demos that have sort of surfaced. I much more into just letting the things come to me. I have this junk pile and I saw Chris [inaudible] talk about it once and it’s true to me. I notice that when Seth and I come together, which we do–we did just a couple of weeks ago–we usually meet at his kitchen table and Seth will have all of these things laid out all perfectly, like recording devices, his computer, stack of notebooks and they are all itinerary.
Seth: 90 degree angles.
Scott: Yeah, then I have napkins and stacks of junk with words on them, written upside down and backwards, and I just plop it down. I’ll piece together a collage of words that makes a song over a long period of time. So my process –and I think we can complement each other on how this process has changed, where I don’t force things as much as I once did. And, that may mean less songs, but I think that’s okay and that’s something we have learned along the way—that less songs is maybe better, putting more emphasis on fewer songs. But there’s not a lack of them still. We’ve got a lot of them. We’ve played one that kind of pertains to–in “Father’s First Spring”–it’s very pertaining to a song that’s written very fast and a song that certainly was scary to put out there, regarding exploiting the family, and family experiences (warming up instruments). This song was written traveling on the bus. I thought that childbirth would bring this wave of songs in my life that would just be unstoppable and it did not do that. It was more of a slow…well there was no time to write songs once the kid came along. This is the first song that came that I remember. This is “Father’s First Spring”.
(The band performed “Father’s First Spring”)
Audience member 4: What song did you guys have the most fun performing or writing?
Scott: (pause) Of all time? (laughter). The consistent answer to a question kind of like that one is that it seems that newer discoveries–as far as songs are concerned, which sometimes can be old songs and sometimes with the songs that were just written–we kind of pull something back and it has a new life with the instrumentation or a new approach, so that song gets pushed to the front, and it’s really enjoyable to play for this moment or time or shows. Then you will see us playing that song more at shows and whatnot. That changes, of course, in the recording studio as well. I think lately, for me personally–well it’s somebody else’s song–there’s a Buck Owens song that we’ve been doing and it’s a lot of fun to play. It’s just a song that we discovered. Nobody had ever heard of it until Seth heard it on his record. But, that we’ve written, lately we’ve been doing this medley thing that we did on TV not long ago with “Kick Drum Heart” and “Geraldine”. It’s very rock and roll but it’s a lot of fun, and it can just set off and take flight. I’ve had a lot of fun with that.
Seth: Yeah. I just want to point out something that I enjoy, was that she asked the question and Scott’s like, “Well the answer to a question that is very similar to that question is…” (laughter). I’m seeing Scott’s sort of very easy transition into politics when someone asks a question and [he says] “Well you know what let me answer a different one.” (laughter).
Scott: I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be the writer for Bob’s speeches.
Seth: That’s right.
Scott: He’s the perfect politician.
Seth: Classic good looks
(cheers from audience for Bob)
Scott and Bob
Audience member 5: This is like the classic songwriting question. What comes first for you guys, the melody or the lyrics?
Seth: I’ll answer this question for Scott (laughter). Scott – while we are highlighting differences between he and I – Scott will sometimes come to me with this idea for a song and be like, “Hey check out this idea for a song.” He’ll play like 3 or 4 minutes long and then he’ll get done and I will be like, “Well you know, it’s an interesting idea, I don’t know about the melodies.” [Scott would say] “Oh don’t worry about the melodies.” And I’m like, “Okay, well maybe we can change a chord.” [Scott would say] “Oh don’t worry about the chords either.” (laughter). That seems pretty consistent with Scott. I think with me it’s kind of either way. It’s just always changing. We feel like the really valuable thing to do with songwriting is to really fight tooth and nail against formula, so try not to get into some way you do it all of the time, and you’ll be in better shape. We’re in better shape when we do that.
Audience member 6: You guys went from playing on street corners and over the years playing and selling out theaters. You talked about the recording process earlier. As far as musical structure and musical elements, how do you think you guys have evolved over the years?
Scott: Once again I can really only speak for myself because Seth always had an awareness of melody and singing much more than me. For me, awareness of key and pitch and singing has been something that I know for the first 4 or 5 years of our existence I didn’t pay any attention to at all. All I wanted to do it to get on stage and move and make an impact – surprise people, or scare people, or excite people, or make people angry or happy or whatever. I just knew that I wanted to shake things up. But for development, I think this goes along for both of us, we’ve become much more aware of wanting to make something that is great in our eyes–in the 3 of ours’ eyes. That will never be reached. It’s kind of like saying, “Well one day I’d like to be perfect.” Of course that will never be reached but we will always try to strive for it. So, there’s a natural progression of refinement in our recordings that we have to this day and continuing have been the captains of. We’ve been very lucky to be the captains of, because we’ve always been allowed to cover our business trail with the art leading. You know, the art has always led the business. So we’ve always got to say, “This is what we want to do with the recording. This is how we want it to work. This is what we are aiming for.” And then people get in line and help us. The answer I’m getting to is just that I hope to refine what it is that we do. That doesn’t necessarily mean cleaner and more polished because we have quite an interest in albums like “Tonight’s the Night” by Neil Young where you have like a true live experience that happens one time and one time only. We’re just searching for great art, or no not searching. We’re trying to make ourselves available for it to find us.
Audience member 7: Are there any songwriters that influence your songwriting, such as John Prine and Bob Dylan?
Scott: Both of those for sure. Townes Van Zandt is huge for me, starting in like 2007. I’d actually avoided Townes Van Zandt because I didn’t like his name (laughter). I have no idea what that even means. I mean I have no idea – total ignorance. But, when I grabbed on and understood the hopeful darkness that he sort of brought with his lyrics, I felt very akin to it.
Seth: I know Bob, I and Scott all would say one is Tom Waits. He’s someone who has no interest in genre or sticking to any genre, which I think is really important for someone who wants to create something and find their original voice, even if their original voice is a crazy circus master, or whatever. Really, he’s someone who could have just skated along as, in the early days, as “Oh it’s the next Bob Dylan, but on piano.” There were a lot of “here’s the next Bob Dylan” throughout the years and decades, but he could have kept on making really quality piano music with a trio or whatever, but it’s really nice how when you think he’s going to zig he zags. He always seemed pretty healthy in his older tunes, and that’s what we’re going for.
Audience member 8: I kind of have a two-part question. One, if you guys ever get stuck or have dry spells do you have things that you do to re-inspire yourselves? And also as you’ve seen your audience grow and become a bigger operation, has that influenced knowing that more people are listening and waiting for bigger music. Does that influence your songwriting?
Seth: The second part of that. You can’t completely ignore it when you know that you are going to record something and if you share it, there’s at least a good chance that hundreds of thousands of people are going to hear it. And while there are really positive sides of that, you could just start psyching yourself out. So I think we’ve worked hard to keep each other grounded, and to find the balance between staying true with it and staying genuine in what we what to do and what really matters. And also not making it seem like it’s more important because more people will hear it. You know initially I was thinking that the f-word was going to be in this song, but maybe not so much anymore.
Scott: The song “Down with the Shine” initially had the f-word in the chorus.
Seth: It was like, this is punk rock–this is good.
Scott: It just was.
Seth: It was like, “Is this exactly what you want to say?” I was like, “Well I don’t know if that’s exactly what we want to say.” (laughter)
Seth: What was the first part of the question?
Seth and Scott Avett
Audience member 8: If you ever get stuck or have dry spells do you have anything to re-inspire yourself?
Scott: I just walk away from it whenever I’m stuck, because the more I convince myself that I am stuck, then I’m stuck. To me there’s a really…I do this with shows sometime. I say, “I don’t care about this,” and just throw it away. Sometimes I’ll do it with a verse. Then I can go out, and I can go relax and it just happens that that’s just the best way. To put all of this importance on one song, you know. I have, well I guess we have, but I have certainly thousands of ideas that are unfinished that if I really let myself think about it too much, it’s overwhelming and daunting. But, things just keep moving forward, so I just let it go. Throw it away. I’m into that. I have this definition I came up with, well not really a definition, no. Seth and I were talking about running. He ran this relay thing a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about it and I said, “Well you know all that matters is that you win, right?” (laughter) He said, “Oh yeah.” We were having a laugh about that. And then we realized the definition of winning, and it got me really thinking about well, no matter who wins the race, whoever is at the pub at the end of the night enjoying camaraderie after this long day of running and you know, exhausting endeavors, whoever is really having the most fun wins. It doesn’t matter who came across the finish line first, or who did it the best. That person will still be jealous of seeing the guy that’s like, “I lost but I’m still having fun.” (laughter) So you know if I hit like a bad note or something, I have to remember that if I am having fun, if I can define fun, including as many people in a good way as I possibly can and have as much of it as I can, then what I’m doing being stuck or not stuck kind of starts to fall away.
Seth: I try to zone in on the same thing when Scott hits a bad note (laughter).
Scott: And Seth will remind me every time (laughter). He likes to do this joke where he comes off the bus and sees whatever nice fella is going to help us at the club or concert or whatever. And, Seth comes over and says, “Listen these guys on this bus have been riding my coattails since day one.”
Seth: I do like to say that (laughter).
Bob: Can I just say one thing here? I just want to say a quick little story. There was a song—we were about to play a festival—and we were in the trailer 5 minutes before we were going on, and there was a very old song that we’ve been playing for 10 years. We were practicing, the 3 of us, and we hit a point and Seth said to Scott, “What chord are you playing?” [Scott said] “Well, I’m playing a G.” [Seth said] “Well you are supposed to be playing an E.” [Scott said] “I’ve been playing this G for 10 years!” (laughter)
Scott: I said, “Why is that important?”
Bob: I don’t know if the moral is that it’s never too late to be better. If it’s Seth it’s: “never too late to be better.” If it’s Scott it’s: “Man I’ve been playing this chord for 10 years!”
Scott: Here’s the problem, the G in my mind works simultaneously with the move when I hit the drum, and it had to stay there because if I was going to make the move on stage. [I should just] deaden all of the chords and just do that (does a cool move).
Seth: Then you could keep the most important part, which is the rock and roll move (laughter)! The great thing about when that happens, and that will happen occasionally, where I am like, “How can I say this to Scott? Scott listen, you are just hitting the wrong chord. I don’t mean for it to be an insult.” If it’s early in the tour Scott’s like, “Oh yeah, my bad. I’ll play the right chord.” But if we are like 2 months in and we are all just ragged, and I’ll be like, “Scott, can you hit the right chord?” and we are just…
Scott: Then later that day I say, “Seth I’m thinking about quittin’.” (laughter)
Seth: Just put like “Quittin’ Hard” on the (inaudible)
Scott: I’m in my pajamas…toothpaste in my beard (laughter).
Audience member 9: How has working with Rick Rubin influenced your process?
Seth: Well there are a few answers for that. He helped us calm down a bit in the studio. Earlier–this question about playing on street corners and getting in the studio, and actually getting to spend significant time in the studio–um playing on the street corner, volume was more important than anything was, you know. So, we worked much more on turning our voices into megaphones rather than having good pitch or especially good rhythm. Working with Rick, it was good because his work speaks for itself, so our ears were open. We’ve been very guilty of just not hearing a lot. Early on Bob would try to help us get some things wrangled in and we were just like, “Nahhhh, we’re good to go. Let’s go on and play right now.” And you know we would. And in the process, me and Scott and Bob over 8 years that we were a band before we met Rick and got in the studio to make “I and Love and You”, Bob admits this but I hadn’t really, that our tempo was all over the place. We stayed together as one voice but we would fly and slow down and fly and slow down, and we were the only 3 that could understand why that was happening. It was just because of hundreds and hundreds of shows. So, working with Rick on a technical aspect, he was really good about saying, “Let’s just tear this down for a second and rebuild it from ground up. Not change the song but let’s just find out what’s happening and why this part feels like, not a disappointment, but just a drop off. It’s not the part. The part’s great, it’s good, but we are slowing down for some reason.” That works on a street corner, but we started having trouble with that working in a room where we really want to hear a song over and over and over and over and over and over.
Scott: There are 3 things that I notice he does as well. I think our lives kind of came together at the right time. I think we all believe that there’s a natural way that a song’s supposed to be and there’s probably several ways that it should be, but we believe it will settle in to a natural –it’s not really in our control. We just know when we hear it. Now there’s probably more than one way and at some point you can pick that they are all right, but you have to get it to that general space where nature sort of says, “This work of art has to be like this, more or less.”
Seth: Yeah, because there’s way more ways to over complicate.
Scott: With that, Rick working in hip-hop, he got good at inventorying parts. He’ll listen to a song once and say, “Well on the second pre-chorus,” which he names it pre-chorus and I’m the one who’s always like, “Why’s it gotta be called a chorus or pre-chorus, let’s just not call it anything. What’s it matter?” But, he’ll inventory everything after one listen and be able to name these parts and where thing mood-wise happen or note-wise or key-wise happen, and then you can all talk about it and play around. Where the hip-hop part comes in is that he can actually visualize this piece and then switch it around, and play with it in the studio like you would with digital parts. We don’t really deal with digital parts. We are pretty dead set on trying to…
Seth: Actually play the song.
Scott: Yeah, um and the third part I forgot.
Audience member 10: Relating to the last song you guys played. How does the songwriting process and the touring schedule work together. Because I imagine it would be pretty frustrating to be inspired when you are seeing the highway every day. So, do you write more songs back home on break or on the road?
Scott: It is both. It’s gotten less to be both as it used to be. It used to be, you could kind of see the world more when you are in a van, right? We travel on a bus now more, or on an airplane. So it’s gotten to be where you are sitting in the coach section of the plane and you really aren’t getting a whole lot of inspiration. Although, your mind can go a lot of places…I don’t mean to drift. We have compartmentalized it a little more at home now than we used to. I think the more we travel, what happens is the more you travel the more you have to travel, and the more you see the more you discover these new words and they have new meanings with new experiences. So like when you are at the Cliffs of Dover and you are like, “Oh my gosh the Cliffs of Dover, what a great line,” you know. And what’s happening right at the Cliffs of Dover is that you are on this ferry that’s got swells of 10 ft and you’re looking down one window and seeing the channel and looking out the other in the sky, and it’s like, so what IS happening right now? So in that regard, being on the road offers all of these new words and new discoveries that have…I always compare it to gold to cash. You know, you have cash. The cash is the song, but it’s gotta have the gold to back it up, which has to be the experience or the belief. You have to actually believe it, because when you try to continue on in your life, I’ve learned and we’ve learned that if [we] try to continue to play songs that we don’t really believe, they just disappear. They’re not important. That’s why so many of these old-time songs have lived so long. They have so many layers of belief and history in them, from so many people, that they are established like a brick foundation, you know–a stone foundation. We should take one more and then you should play that new song.
Scott: We’ll just watch you (laughter). Let’s switch it up and go right here.
Audience member 11: Thank you very much for the joy you’ve given this 40-year-old man…
Scott: Your beard looks great (laughter)…You are out of the service now.
Audience member 11: Yes I am! Thank you very much. You’ve provided the soundtrack for our wedding, thank you. But my question is, let’s go back to high school age, Seth, Scott, and Bob. What were you guys running to the store to buy. I know we talked about Fugazi and all of that stuff, but what other stuff were you listening to 20+ years ago?
Bob: Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements, and Tom Waits.
Scott: I’ve said this over and over, and I’ve started to not want to say it because I am afraid it will get me in trouble one day, but I just worshiped Mike Patton from Faith No More–Mr. Bungle and Faith No More–and anything that he was doing. Then all of the grunge stuff was happening, so Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Which, by the way, I feel like – Blind Melon – I feel like they were all kind of precursors to what I guess some people call the neo-folk thing, which I think has been going on forever. But, I think there was a lot of acoustic rock going on within Nirvana, within Soundgarden, within Alice in Chains. I think “Jar of Flies” was an amazing acoustic record. But anyway, all of that stuff in high school, that’s what it consisted of…Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Seth: Nirvana obviously, um the Deftones, and Doc Watson—a lot of Doc Watson.
Scott: So this is interesting, we got on the bus this morning on the way up and we talked a little bit about not wanting to play too much during the workshop, because we wanted to be able to talk, because we love to talk (laughter).
Seth: We…WE love to talk (laughter).
Scott: So, um, every once in a while, I would give Seth some type of devisal situation, and he will go through lists of his if I haven’t, and it’s typical for me to forget them or just remove myself from them. Seth found kind of this list of them that he started pulling from on his own, so this is an indicator of sort of our process—one part of our process. So, he kind of brought back this series of songs that he’s basically taken ownership of, but we both wrote them. It’s kind of interesting. [To Seth] Um, I don’t really think I should try to play, unless I can…
Seth: Um, okay.
Scott: Well, I mean I will try…
Seth: Yeah, just try.
Scott: Okay, I’ll just do a couple of chords. So this is one of those songs from this new list that we have that we are just kind of watching the songs happen.
(Seth performed a new untitled song. Per the band’s request, audio and video of all unreleased songs should not be posted on the internet)
As previously mentioned, the session ended with a standing ovation as the band smiled, thanked the audience, and promptly left the auditorium. The following day, The Avett Brothers closed out the festival with a raucous and rainy set on the Watson Stage that left the waterlogged audience begging for more, despite the day’s incessant drizzle. Rain or shine, these men always bring their best to the stage, and this year’s MerleFest performances were no different.
Here was an especially moving moment from their Watson stage set, where Scott and cellist Joe Kwon performed “Am I Born to Die”.
Just in time for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, I caught up with Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers, to talk about their new album “The Carpenter”, their first Grammy nomination, songwriting, and learning to play the fiddle, among other things:
EOAF: Congratulations on the success of “The Carpenter”. How would you describe the album?
Crawford: Mature, thoughtful, intentional, poignant, pensive. I think it’s heavy, and I think that’s where…I’ve had friends that I have had since I was 19, I’m 40 now. I’ve had them say “I don’t know about this one. It’s not your best.” I think maybe we lose some people as we go, but maybe we gain people in some ways. Maybe people come and go. It’s not 2007 anymore, and it’s not 2005. It’s a different time for us and I think you are being honest about where you are in life and that being reflected in your art and what you do and the way you do it. It’s definitely going to change.
EOAF: How do you feel about how songs from “The Carpenter” have translated live?
Crawford: Oh they are great! I think they have really translated. You know what they have done? Some of them, like “A Father’s First Spring” and “February 7”, some of these song help us slow down on stage and try to meditate on being intense and calm at the same time. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s really fun to translate something like that live. We’ve had slow songs in the past–God knows we have tons of them. There’s a controlled, an intentional controlled aspect that comes musically, like a hang-there-in-space-and-time and have that patience. I’ve always thought Neil Young did that so well with songs like “Harvest Moon”–how he could have a very intense mid-tempo. That’s tricky for a musician. It’s very hard. The inclination is to play faster, because your heart is beating faster because you are on a stage and there are people.
EOAF: Is there any song from The Carpenter that you really love to play live?
Crawford: “Live and Die” is getting really comfortable. It’s starting to feel like an old trusty. We are getting better, with the last two albums, at holding songs back before the release. We were never good at that before. We’ve gotten better at that. When you record the song, but you don’t really know them, you know your part and you know the section that you did a million times, but you don’t know it like when you are on stage and let it fall out of you. When you record the record, there’s about a year before you really start playing the songs intently and constantly, and then they take on a life of their own. So, they are coming. Some of them are still in the coming phase, but some of them have been very surprising to play, like “Life” has been fun to play and “Paul Newman [vs. the Demons]” has been fun to play. That can be really fun to play.
EOAF: You played “Life” for the first time live at The Christmas Jam in Asheville. That was exciting to see you guys added last minute to the line-up. How was that experience for you?
Crawford: It was fun! Scott [Avett] and I used to live in Asheville, and I remember a time when the Christmas Jam came around. For a couple of years we were asked to participate, but we do our New Year’s show in Asheville. So it was finally good that this year we could be a part of it. It was really great, because we hadn’t played together in about a month and a half. I mean we had practiced, but we hadn’t done a show. It was fun because I was actually really nervous, but we did great. I was like, “This is great I am nervous! This is awesome.”
EOAF: That is a great feeling, and it was also a very different crowd. The majority of the people there were sort of that jam-band crowd.
Crawford: Yeah! It was nice to get that support. I could also tell from the stage that [the audience was] really there to see String Cheese [Incident]. That made if fun. It was nice to be in a room that we’ve sold out, and played two nights there before, and for it to be a new room—for the lighting to be different and for there to be no backdrop behind us.
EOAF: “The Carpenter” was nominated for the Best Americana Album award for this year’s Grammy’s. Congratulations! Where were you when you found out?
Crawford: Thank you so much. I was at home in bed. I started getting texts saying “Congratulations” and this and that.
EOAF: How does the Grammy nomination play into your or The Avett Brothers’ definition of success?
Crawford: I think it’s always nice to be patted on the back, or nice to have someone tell you good job. Let’s face it. It’s great to get a compliment. I mean, it’s always nice, but I don’t think it’s why we do it, and it’s not even necessary for us to continue doing it—to get those kind of accolades. We’re going to keep doing what we do probably until it doesn’t seem useful anymore, until there’s no need to write songs, until we feel like we’ve plateaued, or we feel like we have nothing to say, or until people stop coming to see us live. But I think the first thing, besides a tragedy, that would hasten us not doing it would be if we had nothing to say. We always told ourselves earlier that we would stop doing it if it seemed like we plateaued—if it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere any longer, you know. I don’t know that we are there yet. I think we hope to do it forever. Maybe there are years to take off, or we can take a break, but I hope it can still exist in the same light.
EOAF: It is great that you guys have been getting recognized more for what you are doing. In that notoriety you have been asked to play with some pretty big names over the past two years—Bob Dylan, you’ve played for Tom T. Hall, and you did the Crossroads sessions with Randy Travis. Is there anything from those specific experiences that really stands out to you?
Crawford: Well they are all really touching and exciting. Obviously the Bob Dylan thing is surreal. It’s even surreal now because it doesn’t even feel like it really happened. You know? It’s one of those things. “Did that really happen?” It was really exciting to work with Randy Travis. He was great, I mean really awesome. He was great to be around and a really nice guy. I think we really blended well together. I think it’s a nice match and definitely a connection there. They are all really great, but we have to keep in mind that to share the stage with somebody or to collaborate isn’t the main thing. To be able to do these things is great, and we should be thankful for them, enjoy them and savor the moment, but it’s not the main thing. Take it as it comes, but we have that thing that we do and that needs to come first and foremost.
EOAF: Did you grown up in NJ?
Crawford: I did, I grew up in South Jersey.
EOAF: So is it safe to assume that you didn’t grow up listening to people like Doc Watson and Tom T. Hall?
Crawford: Yes, I started listening to Doc Watson in 1992. A friend of mine drove me down to MerelFest. Actually, the first time I saw Doc was at the Cowtown Bluegrass Festival with that same friend who told me about MerleFest. Then I saw Doc I saw at The Bottom Line in New York City before I moved down here. I remember the first time I saw him my friend was like, “That’s a legend. You got to see a legend”. I didn’t even know who he was at the time. I was fortunate enough to see him many, many times after that. We opened up for him one time and of course we played MerleFest all those years, and the last time I saw him was when we played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. He was out there and he was playing with David Holt, and we watched him from the side of the stage. I’ll never forget it. It was a very sad day when he passed–very, very sad day.
EOAF: You have recently added the mandolin and fiddle to your contributions to the band. How did that come about?
It came about because Scott and Seth [Avett] are very open to and very supportive of things that I try to do. The fiddle has been the most recent, and I seem to be getting some traction with it. Beginning to play something at the age of 40, you know, I wish I’d been playing all of these instruments when I was 15 or 16 years old, but that wasn’t the case. But the fiddle has been a real mental savior the past couple of years for me, and I feel myself growing in it in a lot of ways. Scott and I–before my daughter got sick–we started playing old-time music like Tommy Jarrell and Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, and Uncle Dave Macon–just old-time music and we would just kind of go do our thing. Doc Watson when he was very young with Clarence Ashley, that’s a really good album if people can find that—really, really good. Doc was very, very young. It’s awesome. Anyway, we’d just be backstage and play these old-time tunes and try to learn them. They were just claw hammer banjo and fiddle tunes. It just kind of grew out of that. We still do it. When my daughter got sick, he’d come visit me at the hospital, and we would play. It’s kind of our thing. Hopefully someday…well maybe even not…maybe it doesn’t have to be something that we do for people. Maybe it’s actually something that we can do for us, but it’s been a lot of fun.
EOAF: The cool thing about when you get in the spotlight on stage, is that everyone just goes crazy. I think it stems from the fact that the spotlight is always on Scott and Seth so much, but the fact is that you are the third brother. When you sing your songs or do your upright bass spin [the crowd goes wild]. By the way how many revolutions can you get on that thing when you spin it around?
Crawford: (Laughs) Well like I always say, any monkey can spin a bass, and someday I am going to teach one to do it just to prove my point. But I love this job I have and the guys I travel with and play with. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, and I am so thankful for that. I just want to enjoy my remaining years, as many as they may be, just playing music and loving music and learning songs. I have just been fortunate with life.
EOAFr: Have you done any songwriting recently for yourself or your side projects?
Crawford: Not since my daughter got sick. David Childers and I did another Overmountain Man record, which will be out January 22 (“The Next Best Thing”, Ramseur Records). It was recorded before Hallie (Crawford’s daughter) got sick, and I’ve got several songs that are on that [album]. The fiddle was kind of that thing that I did when things got out of the critical phase and I had time to tinker, you know like 45 minutes a day, or a half hour a day in the hospital. I just kind of tinkered on the fiddle and tried to get to know that more. I feel myself closer to writing now. I write down little things here and there. I think at some point, there was a time after Hallie got sick, I thought, “I’m living it, I don’t have to write about it,” you know? Life is so intense I don’t have too much time for that. I think the big thing that we’ve been though–my family and people who have been through far different and far worse things—in some ways sometimes I think there are far worse things that you can go through as horrible as what we have gone through. You kind of get the feeling, and not in a bad way, that no one can really understand what you are going through or what you feel, like your friends and family members. You kind of just feel like, man, you kind of feel frustrated and angry. You don’t want anyone to go through what you are going through. You certainly wouldn’t even want your worst enemy to go through what you are going through, so you feel like no one really understands what you are going through. The idea of writing about it—if someone can’t truly understand or empathize, for good reason–what would be the point? Other than journaling, which I have done intentionally, how would it come out and what would you say? I think it’s just a matter of getting my head to the right place to write about it. I think I am going to write at some point, I just don’t know what or when.
EOAF: In terms of your daughter, the entire Avett Nation community has been hopefully uplifting for you and your family. Since then—and probably before then–a lot of the fans have gotten together around Avett Brother shows, and organized community events or fundraisers. How does that make you feel, and what part do you think you guys play in that?
Crawford: I don’t know what part we play in it. We do what we can, and we do as much as we can. I know we all have charities that we support and try to do all we can for. I am really glad people do it. Any kind of service, I’m glad people do it. I’d like to dedicate my life more to service. Any time you can serve someone else, it’s probably the greatest thing you can do as a human being. When I think about God and practicing your faith, I think that service to others is probably number one to what we can all do as human beings. I don’t think I’ve served anyone as well as I think that my wife and I and our family has been served during our time. We’ve been served amazingly by so many, so many friends and family members, and of course the Avett family and the Avett community has served us as well. I think that is something that I always keep my mind present to—ways to serve. I just think service is one of the most important things that we can all be doing. Look at the world and the country and people’s attitudes, people being divided along political lines—I think if people just focused on serving each other and serving someone other than themselves, a lot of these compromises we need would be evident.
EOAF: You guys used to play at Peasants here in Greenville, right?
Crawford: Yes, we did.
EOAF: Did you know they are reopening?
Crawford: No, but I am glad to hear that.
EOAF: There is a push to get music back in Eastern NC, so if you all are ever back in this neck of the woods, even if any of your side projects want to come through here, I know the town would be very happy to have you.
Crawford: Thank you!
EOAF: By all accounts you were pretty instrumental in pushing the [Avetts] out of their comfort zones and having them go on tour in the beginning. There are obviously tons of young singer/songwriters and bands in the Eastern NC area trying to make it, for example, Nick and The Babes is just one of them. What would be your advice to a young band or singer/songwriter out of this area who really wants to get noticed?
You mentioned Nick. He and I are friends and have worked together a little bit. I definitely think that people should take notice to them. I think that the advice is to get out of the area. Spend as much time as possible on the road and just travel around and around and around and around and just try to share what you do with the country. There really is no easy way. I can only say this because this is what we did, and this is what works for us. There are probably other ways to do it but I don’t know those ways. I haven’t experienced that. I know there is a ton of talent out there, and I wish this was a time in my life when I could go out and see more of it. I know there are a lot of really great musicians and there is plenty to be taking notice of. I hope they will have the presence of mind to reach outside of their comfort zone and listen to some other music.
The original interview appeared in Mixer Magazine. I would like to thank Bob Crawford for his time. To learn more about The Avett Brothers and their music, please visit www.theavettbrothers.com.
To launch their 2013 concert series, JAMinc.–a local non-profit organization that promotes music appreciation through education, performance, and support–brought in singer/songwriter/master storyteller Jim Avett from Concord, NC to perform for a sold-out crowd at In Your Ear Recording Studio in Richmond, VA this past Friday night.
As a part of his collaboration with JAMinc., Jim spent time before his evening performance visiting two Richmond schools–Maggie Walker Govenor’s School and Douglas Freeman High School. This push to get talented musicians into Richmond area schools is part of the core mission at JAMinc. Over the past decade, they have successfully reached over 47,000 K-12 students in the Richmond area.
Photo by: Andy Garrigue
Photo by: Andy Garrigue
During his time with the students, Jim shared his stories and songs, and offered them encouragement rooted in reality. He “encouraged them to be the best they can be,” not only in music, but also in life. This “just do your best” theme is pervasive in any music from the Avett family, indicating a firm belief that each of us has a purpose in life, and doing our best is always enough to make an impact.
Later that evening, music lovers gathered in the listening room at In Your Ear Recording Studio for Jim’s show. Many of those present had never seen Jim perform live, but were eager and excited to hear the music of the Avett family patriarch. Little did they know, they were not only about to hear a gifted singer/songwriter, but also one of the best storytellers this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Unlike the crowd, I have had the pleasure of seeing Jim Avett perform several times. While no two shows are alike, I have heard most of his stories a time or two. Though he is always quick to apologize for his redundancy, it is in his redundancy that lessons are reinforced and new connections to music are created. Therefore, it’s not surprising to still find myself completely engaged and entertained when he dives into one of his old trusty tales about getting his first guitar, the art of picking, or his admiration for great songwriters like Tom T. Hall. Somehow Jim’s stories never wear thin. They never get old. Perhaps it’s his lighthearted country charm and down-home humility, or the simple wisdom and appreciation for what is true that keeps listeners like myself coming back for another helping of Jim Avett.
Photo by: Andy Garrigue
Flanked by lead guitarist Ray Morton and fiddlers Ali and Justine Parker, Jim took the stage in his trademark cowboy hat and black leather vest, and did what he does best–took listeners on a musical journey through his life. During the first half of the show, Jim wove childhood stories in with the songs that have shaped him into the musician he is today. His set list was thoughtful–deliberately complimenting tales about growing up in the foothills of NC, learning his first guitar chord progressions, and stealing history lessons from Johnny Horton songs. He delighted the captivated audience with classics like, All I Have to do is Dream, Wreck of the Old ’97, Sink the Bismarck, Keep on the Sunny Side, (Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine, and Hey Good Lookin’.
After a short intermission, Jim, Ray and Ali returned to the stage to play original tunes from Jim’s most recent albums “Tribes” and “Second Chance”–and you better believe that the stories continued as well. As Jim explained the details behind each songs, it was evident that he not only writes from personal experiences, but also through a keen observation of others, which he displayed in songs like Willard and Decisions. Through his tough facade, hardened by a lifetime of honest and dirty work, a sweet and candid family man emerged as he spoke fondly of his his wife Susie and their three children. With ease, he admitted his propensity for writing love songs, before transitioning into some of his favorites including Leaving Knoxville, Through the Passing Years, Tribes, and Saying Goodbye. Jim also treated the audience to a new song called, World Goes Round and Round–a heartfelt story of a grandaddy walking along a wooded path with his granddaughter and offering up a lifetime of advice.
With his first performance in Richmond, VA on the books, Jim proved, once again, that he is a master of lyrical imagery. With his stories and songs, he painted a picture of a simpler, fonder time that many of us long for, as we forge ahead into the tech-savvy, hustle-bustle world in which we live.
In a city so defined by its history, Jim Avett has gifted Richmond with his own little piece of the past–a kind reminder that sometimes we must look back through the history of music to allow ourselves to evolve and move forward in our own story and song.
Take a listen to a short interview with Jim just before his set at In Your Ear Recording Studio:
Over the last decade, The Avett Brothers have gained attention for their seamless harmonies, heart-wrenching lyrics and frenetic banjo-driven live shows. From humble beginnings busking on street corners in downtown Greenville to sharing the stage with folk legend Bob Dylan at the Grammy Awards, brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford have certainly come a long way on their journey to the top.
Despite the bright lights of success, The Avett Brothers have remained dedicated to giving back to their community. Their most recent charitable venture involved partnering with Cheerwine for the “Legendary Giveback Concert” last month at nTelos Wireless Pavilion in Charlottesville, Va. The concert benefited Operation Homefront, Big Brothers Big Sisters and University of Virginia Children’s Hospital. Additionally, fans who pledged to volunteer in their communities received access to an online live stream of the concert.
The evening in Charlottesville was met with much excitement from fans across the Southeast. Concertgoers began lining up for the sold-out general-admission show as early as 8 a.m. for an 8 p.m. show.
When The Avett Brothers finally took the stage, the packed amphitheater erupted. The Avetts and Crawford were joined on stage by touring band members, cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Jacob Edwards and Paul Defiglia on the keys. They opened with a high-energy version of “Slight Figure of Speech,” and it was clear that these Concord boys came to blow the roof off of the venue.
They delighted the audience with a handful of old favorites, like “Salvation Song,” “Old Joe Clark” and “Gimmeakiss,” as well as new songs from their most recent album, “The Carpenter,” like “Live and Die,” “I Never Knew You” and a crowd-hushing, stripped-down version of “Through My Prayers.”
The entire set was elevated by playful brotherly antics, Seth’s face-melting electric guitar solos and Scott’s kick-drum acrobatics and stage sprints. The evening closed with an old-timey cover of “Alabama Gals,” but could be summed up best by the lyrics of “Salvation Song”: “And they may pay us off in fame but that is not why we came and if it compromises truth then we will go.”
The group’s air of goodwill has become the norm among their most loyal fans, who have organized fundraisers as far west as Portland, Ore. The Avett Brothers have proven themselves to not only be extremely talented musicians, but also a band of brothers working toward the greater good.