Before they went and got big, before the late-night talk shows, before Bonnaroo and Coachella and Red Rocks and the Gorge, before the major label, before they shared a stage at the Grammys with Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers were the Avett brothers — born-performer Scott and shier second son Seth, brothers of Bonnie, sons of Jim and Susie and the worn-wood farmhouse on 60-plus Cabarrus County acres out where the asphalt ends. They sat with their sister squeezed into the backseat of a Chrysler LeBaron dubbed Gray Baby and created the kind of harmony best made by blood kin. They took piano lessons. They took guitar lessons. They listened to gospel at church and bluegrass at home and Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, and Nirvana in fields with friends around couch-burning bonfires. They studied art at East Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and played in noisy, rowdy heavy-metal bands. They cleaned carpets to make money and during breaks jotted in journals snippets of lyrics of songs in their heads. They drove their bronze Ford Taurus wagon across the country, eating little but peanut butter and honey on wheat, listening over and over to the soundtrack of Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose, putting on shirts mostly only to go inside to pay for gas, stopping on street corners and opening their instrument cases and waiting for dollars and coins that usually never came. They drove home from Seattle, 46 hours straight. They saw the sun rise twice. They met Bob Crawford on a Sunday evening in a parking lot in front of a Media Play store in Charlotte and did some songs with him and liked what they heard. So they played around Charlotte, the three of them did, in front of the Dairy Queen on Central, in front of a tattoo parlor on Morehead, at University Place over by UNCC, practicing in public, until the owner of a shop called the Wine Vault gave them a regular Friday night gig on his brick patio, where they played shows that lasted three hours, and sometimes more, for 150 bucks plus tips. Fingers grew raw and voices grew hoarse and crowds just grew. As 2001 turned to 2002, the brothers began becoming the Brothers, and Scott, the most confident Avett, the whole family agrees, figured he knew something others would soon: that it was only a matter of time before somebody noticed. Then one night at the Wine Vault somebody did.
Dolph Ramseur had started a small, local record label. He sat near the rear at one of the shows. He saw a shaggy-haired, shaved-faced Scott playing a banjo and a kick drum. He saw Seth with a bushy Civil War beard playing an acoustic guitar and a stomp cymbal. He saw Bob playing the stand-up bass he’d brought in the back of his Toyota Tacoma to the Media Play meeting. What he heard was an energetic mixture of … what? Folk? Rock? Bluegrass? Americana in the broadest sense, song after song, some of which were theirs, some of which were not, most of which they played more than once because they didn’t have that many. But it felt “handmade.” People got up and danced. He had grown up in Cabarrus County, too, Dolph had, on the other side of Concord, and he had a wide, eclectic musical appetite. He liked Steven Patrick Morrissey from Manchester, England, and he liked Doc Watson from Deep Gap, and he liked them for the same reason he was interested in working with the Avetts. They sounded like where they were from.
At one of the intermissions, he introduced himself, and Scott, Seth, and Bob shook Dolph’s hand then went back to playing. Scott was 26. Seth was 22. Bob was just past 30. The neon sign on the window behind them read OPEN.
Jim Avett sits in a booth at Troutman’s Barbecue for breakfast. The man who fathered the Avett brothers orders pork tenderloin, hash browns with onions, and three eggs over hard. Then he does what he does best.
His stories meander, but in a way that’s mellifluous and welcome, and maybe they’re wholly factually accurate and maybe they’re not. But they’re all true. And they always end with a quick thought that floats into the air like a cornpone period.
“You don’t run from something. You run to something.”
“The most beautiful stuff is unadorned.”
“You are as you are.”
And so after tales of explorations in Antarctica, sinking ships in the Indian Ocean, hunts in the jungles of Africa, and the World War II vet who taught him high school physics, he says: “Daddy said, my daddy said, it’s easier to lead a chain than it is to push one. You show ’em how to do it. You don’t tell ’em. You show ’em. Scott can tell you today, I remember putting up a chicken house, chicken house is still up, and I was screwing down the top, and Scott was handing me screws and pulling the cord and whatever, and he was absolutely mesmerized. It was a hot day. God almighty was it hot. I had shorts on, tennis shoes, no shirt, no socks, no nothing, and the sweat was dripping, constantly dripping, I mean it was pouring off me, and I remember him looking and saying: ‘How can you do this?’ That top ain’t gonna get on that chicken house unless I put it on. Ain’t nobody else to put it on. You want it done? Do it.”
“You need to learn early on to sweat.”
The brick building on Union Street in downtown Concord was a pharmacy at first. It was built at the turn of the 20th century. Some 100 years later, a man named Laine Harling — home inspector, general contractor, collector of vintage books and bric-a-brac — bought the building and renovated it. Upstairs got old books. Downstairs got 12 beer taps. And the basement got new, treated-pine two-by-twelves to reinforce the floor. He called it the George Washington Bookstore and Tavern. It opened in 2002. Seth Avett was a regular. He came in to buy gold leaf volumes of farmers’ ballads and read them at the bar with some Captain Morgan and a splash of Coke.
The Brothers’ album Country Was had come out, and another one, A Carolina Jubilee, was on its way.
Their music was attracting some attention. But the sound was still difficult to describe. Porch punk? Grunge grass? Not totally wrong. Not quite right. Fans who’d heard them in Charlotte and along the East Coast on a touring schedule of relentless pace didn’t know what to call it, either. They just liked the optimistic banjo gallops; the close-your-eyes love songs; the occasional punkish screams, screeches, and yawps. They were Piedmont pickers. They were unabashed thrashers. They sounded like they meant it.
For A Carolina Jubilee, the release party concert was set for Harling’s George Washington Bookstore and Tavern, a fitting venue for the developing momentum of this mishmash of old and new. The Brothers sound the way they sound for lots of reasons. Because their mother was a teacher. Because their father was a welder. Because his father was a preacher. Because “we had room to run, and Mama just let us go,” is how sister Bonnie puts it, and so they did. Because their parents wrote each other love letters. Because the walls of the house are covered with books and guitars, and the former were read and the latter were played. Because there’s a general store on a country road not far from the Avetts’ land, and behind that general store is a garage, and behind that garage is a dim-lit, concrete-block room, and in that room in the evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jim Avett still gathers to pick and sing with men who fix cars to pay the rent and make music to live a life. But the Brothers also sound the way they sound because they came of age not just how they did and where they did but when they did, too, at the frenzied end of the area’s existential shift, from textiles to rooftops, barnyards to bedrooms, blackjack soil to backed-up roadways — from the Concord mills, where things were made, to the Concord Mills mall, where things are bought.
That night at the Bookstore and Tavern, the Avett Brothers entered through the door out back because the crowd in the front was already too much. It was one of the first times doing so seemed necessary. They waited downstairs.
Capacity was 300 people. There were at least that many inside, and even more jammed against the storefront windows out on the sidewalk so they maybe could see what they were about to hear.
The mayor stepped onto the stage. He later would describe what he saw as a wall of people, like they were standing on each other’s shoulders, like they stretched to the ceiling.
“How many of you are Avett fans?” the mayor said.
The question was rhetorical, and the response was a roar, as it was again when the Brothers appeared. The audible expressions of energy and anticipation were almost too big for such a small space. “And as soon as they hit that first chord,” Harling remembers, “everybody started moving, in unison.”
From the tiny stage, it looked to Scott and Seth like a spinning, sweaty, gritty, wild, almost dangerously jubilant swirl. Inside, Jeremy Davis, who had met Seth at UNCC, who had been to most of the Wine Vault shows, who that night felt like “something big was about to happen,” and who felt like “they were on their way,” sensed everybody else felt it, too — this connection between the band and the crowd, and everybody in the crowd to everybody else, like all of them just knew.
About the third song, Harling went into his basement; walked toward those reinforced, treated-pine two-by-twelves; and reached up and touched one — to feel the vibrations, “a good half-inch, three-quarters of an inch,” he remembers, of up-and-down movement. He had built this for somebody. Here they were.
Jim Avett sits on the porch in front of the house packed with music and books. Now it’s just him and Susie and the chickens and the cows and a docile Doberman named Jesse.
“Scott,” he says, “you would show him something and he would say, ‘I got it, I got it,’ and he didn’t have it. But he said, ‘I got it.’ He’s the one who didn’t like to practice. Seth would practice. If you sat down to talk to him, because there was always a guitar laying out, he’d grab the guitar and he’d be playing while you were talking to him. I told Scott, whenever he wanted to quit playing guitar, and he wanted to quit taking lessons in piano, I said, ‘You’re not to a point where you can pick up the ball and run with it. You need more lessons.’ And he said he didn’t, and I’m not going to push him. It does me no good to push him. If he had decided that this is what he’s going to do, this is what he’s going to do. But I told him, ‘You’re going to pay the price, and it doesn’t do a daddy any good to say I told you so.’ That’s not why I’m a daddy. He came back around several years later and said, ‘I’m paying the price, I’m gonna go back and take some more lessons,’ and he did.”
No I told you so?
“Never,” Jim says.
“Never,” he says again.
“Might make me feel like I won. I’m not sure there’s any glory in winning. That’s not the reason you’re a parent. You’re a parent to pass it on.”
That pause again.
“The idea is to pass it on.”
Sarah George walked into Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill the first Sunday evening of November 2008. She had seen the Brothers for the first time at MerleFest in North Wilkesboro more than three years before when she wandered by one of the smaller stages and saw three young men in three-piece suits. Who, she wondered, were “these strange men dressed like they’re from the 19th century but playing this loud bluegrass-rock mix?” It was her parents’ beloved bluegrass, only made for her, and she fell in love. She saw them in Charlotte. She saw them in Greensboro. She saw them in Winston-Salem. Usually up close. At Memorial Hall, though, she was disappointed to see her seat was in the balcony, and her seat wasn’t the only disconnect she’d started to feel.
The Brothers had a new member. The expressive Joe Kwon played the cello. The chart-climbing Emotionalism of 2007 had followed the successes of The Robbinsville Sessions of 2006 and Mignonette of 2004. They had continued to tour pretty much nonstop, but no longer just in the Southeast, or even on the East Coast. They had been on Conan O’Brien’s show. And by the end of 2008, a transformative year, they had signed with Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin, whose industry history included Metallica, Jay-Z, and Johnny Cash.
The Avett Brothers were no longer this thrilling secret. Fans like Sarah George had to learn to share.
It was new, too, for the Brothers. They had lived in the stitches between the old and the new — “Why’d we have to change?” they asked in “Smoke In Our Lights” on A Carolina Jubilee — the constant cycle of connections, made, lost, made again, and with change comes questions, always.
Sarah George’s balcony seat turned out to be a perfect vantage point. She could see the answers. She could feel the energy, on the stage and in the crowd and in between the two, from the frantic, full-bodied finale of “Laundry Room” to the crowd-wide sing-along at the end of “Go to Sleep” — la la la la la la — to the softer, slower “Ballad of Love and Hate,” sung only by Seth. It’s a beautiful song about the only thing that matters. The stand-up bass was on its side on the stage, and the cello was, too. Scott sat down at the drums, not to play, just to get out of the way, looking weary but grateful. “Thanks for coming, y’all,” he said. The room was dark except for the light shining on Seth. He tuned his guitar and stepped toward the mic. Years later when asked about that show, Seth would talk about its “tender, fragile moments,” the kind that pass by too quickly, in such stark contrast to the hectic everyday jumble, and how at times during that song, during that rendition of “The Ballad of Love and Hate,” it felt to him on the stage like no one in the crowd even wanted to breathe.
Michael Kruse, a graduate of Davidson College, is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, where he has won state, regional, and national reporting and writing awards. He is a contributor to ESPN’s Grantland.com and the author of Taking the Shot: The Davidson Basketball Moment. The Avett Brothers will be playing at the Greensboro Coliseum on New Year’s Eve.