Nothing Short of Thankful: The Avett Brothers at 20
Scott and Seth Avett came out of Cabarrus County two decades ago with songs, talent, heart, friends, impeccable timing, a manager who promoted them with an evangelist’s zeal, and an urge to pour their bonfire energy into the vessel of tradition—the driving fiddles-and-banjos folk sound of Piedmont North Carolina.
Along the way, they’ve released album after album of songs that take listeners around the world by the hand and walk with them down life’s washboard roads.
The Avett Brothers decided what to be, then became it: internationally recognized artists and the Charlotte area’s fixed star in the night sky of popular music.
This is their story, told by the people who know them best.
musician, writer of “The Prettiest Thing” and “Lucky Stranger”
journalist, author, fan
executive director, MerleFest
Charlotte music fan and ex-local music email newsletter publisher; co-owner, The Evening Muse
Eric Lovell and Gigi Dover
musicians, husband and wife
childhood friend and confidante, longtime community leader in NoDa, “O.G. merch girl”
journalist, author, fan
founder, ElectroMagnetic Radiation Recorders, Winston-Salem
THE AVETT BROTHERS take the stage in their skeleton outfits, the same ones they wore for the “High Steppin’” video and no surprise, it being Halloween and all. Between songs, Scott tells the effervescent crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, how happy he is to be back in the Carolinas in the fall. “Boy, that was a very un-Halloween thing to say,” Scott remarks, catching himself. “That was much more like Thanksgiving than Halloween. So, happy Thanksgiving.” Then, to cheers, they launch into the lilting, arpeggiated introduction to “Murder in the City,” one of the songs that carried them here.
The band’s on tour to promote their most recent album, Closer Than Together, released four weeks before. Not quite 20 years into their career as The Avett Brothers, Scott and Seth Avett—for now, anyway—have dropped the heartfelt songs about family and friends, the minefield of adulthood, and pretty girls from one place or another in favor of heartfelt songs about the patriarchy, political power, gun violence, and the complicated legacy of the United States. “I want to make amends,” one song asks, “but where do I start?” They take the stage and play. The band has changed with the times, and the times have changed the context within which the band plays; a lusty shout arises from the audience to the line in “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” about your life not changing “by the man that’s elected.” That song was on an album released in 2009. The same line in 2019 swims in an entirely different river of meaning.
Evolution is something the Avetts do well, though. They found their way in 1999 and 2000 when they decided they’d rather wrench traditional music into new shapes than play hard rock in Nemo, their band to that point. They turned softer, more introspective, after people raved about this shaggy group of guys from North Carolina who played bluegrass as if they were The Clash. “They’ve never been middle-of-the-table,” says Dolphus Ramseur, the fellow Concord native who remains the Avetts’ evangelizing manager to this day. “They’ve always been closer to the edge of the table, almost falling off of the table, pushing the boundaries of things.”
A bunch of folks have seen the Avetts push against those boundaries over the years. Some have pushed along with them. Twenty years into the Avetts’ career, we asked some of them how it all happened.
Track 1: Open-Ended Life
Hollis Nixon, friend: We were kids together, and we hung out. Scott was kind of the older, cool brother that people had a crush on. I did, sure—I mean, everybody did. They come from a tight-knit family, and they care about each other a lot. They’re both very artistic, and I don’t think they get enough credit for that. I always thought of them both more, like, sketching something or painting something than I ever did about them playing music.
They played a lot at the Lions Club in Mount Pleasant. They were both already playing music. It was very loud music. Kind of a grunge-metal mix, not what people would think of when they think of The Avett Brothers today. I remember a lot of bonfire parties for sure, and sitting on a log and Scott strumming the guitar, and I definitely remember beach weeks and stuff with Scott in stupid Myrtle Beach, where we’d go like every other stupid kid around here. But I remember a lot of fields, a lot of campfires, and a lot of songs.
Their dad played music, and I think that’s really important because they grew up with that, knowing that that was in the realm of possibility. It’s not like another teenager, right, going to their parents and saying, “I want to be a rock star.” This sounds kind of provincial, but I don’t think everybody grew up that way, not from my town.
Track 2: A Lot of Movin’
Hollis: When they would do, like, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” or “I’ll Fly Away,” that was probably the gospel moment for me. I was like, “I think they’ve figured this thing out.” They made it fun. They made gospel music almost danceworthy, like, you wanted to clap your hands and stomp your feet and cut a rug, or whatever the kids call it these days. It was so energetic, you could feel the floor shaking.
Eric Lovell, musician: I met ’em in 2002 because I was living in Saluda. They gave me a burned copy of Country Was with a sticker on it and a xeroxed copy of the album cover. Because they were just putting them together themselves. I think they’d done it on either a four- or eight-track machine.
Gigi Dover, musician: I had never heard of them, and when it came on, I was like, “Who is this?” And Eric was like, “These are my buddies. You gotta listen to these guys. They’re awesome.”
Eric: I was working on a record for a guy named Dave Rhames. And he wanted these dudes to come and sing on it with him. He’s like, “Man, I know these two guys, Scott and Seth, The Avett Brothers, they’ve got a band, they just put an independent record out. It’s really great. And I want them to come up and sing.”
They came to my house, and they pulled up in this long, like, Lincoln or something. Man, it was just this total pimpin’ ride, and a couple of skinny, kind of greasy-looking dudes come falling out of it. And as soon as I saw ’em, I was like, “Those dudes got something.” I didn’t even hear ’em, but you could tell, you know, it was just in their collective vibe. You know how you see people and you kind of go, “Y’all kind of got a little something going on, man. I don’t know what it is yet.” But they definitely had a look—
Gigi: And a swagger.
Eric: They were true. You know what I mean? They weren’t putting any front on or anything. What you saw was what you got. They were just a couple of dudes trying to make some music. But you could feel their brotherhood. I didn’t necessarily know they were brothers. I just saw ’em get out of the car, and I’m like, “Dudes look pretty cool, man. They vibin’ right.”
Daniel Coston, photographer: I met Bob. In, I’m gonna say, ’98, ’99, he was playing in a band called the Memphis Quick 50, which was a rock band I met through other mutual friends. Bob came from a video background, like I did. He was anxious to make something out of music, and the Quick 50 didn’t want to do that. So when Bob met the Avett brothers, you know, here you have two guys who had been touring a little bit around the region with Nemo, and we’re kind of starting over again with this Nemo back-porch project, which became The Avett Brothers. And suddenly, I think he found the right people at the right time, and they found him.
Track 3: Signs
(Ed.: On September 12, 2002, on the advice of Eric Lovell and David Childers, a struggling record company owner from Concord named Dolphus Ramseur went to see The Avett Brothers at The Wine Vault in the University City area of Charlotte. He went home and told his wife he wasn’t even sure what he’d just seen and heard, but she had to see them. “They just had it,” he said later. The Avett Brothers signed a contract with Ramseur Records, which released the band’s first official album, A Carolina Jubilee, in August 2003.)
Dolphus Ramseur, manager: At the time, I was moving furniture for a company in Charlotte and trying to do this music thing … Growing up in the Piedmont, I was so fortunate to get to see The Arthur Smith Show, and Tommy Faile was a part of Arthur’s crew. He was a great baritone voice and great rhythm guitarist. So to me, the brothers, I guess there’s a little bit of that going on. Then there’s a little bit of—everybody in the Piedmont here will have a piano in the living room, where families would get around a piano and entertain themselves. The brothers have a little bit of that.
I grew up about 10 miles from Davidson College, and through the ’80s, they had a college radio station, late night, like, it would kick up at 11 o’clock at night and go to 2 a.m. or something. And, of course, I grew up on a dirt road in Cabarrus County, out in the boondocks, and I didn’t have cable television, so I didn’t have MTV. But that station would play a lot of punk rock and post-punk music and alternative music from around the United States, and Mitch Easter up in Winston-Salem was producing R.E.M. So I was a fan of all that. And the brothers to me were just sort of the perfect marriage of roots music that’s kind of heartfelt but has an edge to it.
Tim Davis, journalist: They played some sort of outdoor festival around 2001, back when The Penguin was still there, and they—I want to say it was July 4—had a stage set up out front on the back of a truck. I just happened to catch them. I did this column for Creative Loafing called “Scene & Herd,” and I was going out to shows all the time. There were a lot of bands at that time sort of doing the Son Volt or Whiskeytown kind of thing, and there weren’t a whole lot of people jumping in on the bluegrass element. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, this is not necessarily a guaranteed career move, to be playing that kind of music these days.”
Bluegrass has kind of a backbone of instrument-playing perfectionism and perfect harmonies, that sort of stuff, and they were playing bluegrass instruments with kind of a punkier, rock ’n’ roll kind of energy. You go see Del McCoury, and it’s wonderful and beautiful, and the musicianship is amazing, but they try everything possible to sand down the rough edges, whereas the Avetts to begin with were all just rough edges. But there was something there, this kind of sibling harmony thing, where, I don’t know, it just barely worked, but it worked.
David Childers, musician: I first heard of ’em from my son, Robert. He’s a musician. We were playing at the Double Door Inn. I had a band, the Modern Don Juans. And we had this thing back then where every Tuesday night was Americana night for about four or five years. There was this core of players, and (the Avetts) were one of the acts that came in as a guest. But they brought a big crowd, and they were obviously connecting with people, and there was a lot of excitement generated around it. But to me, they seemed like they were just kids. And that doesn’t mean they weren’t good as hell. I think they were a little deferential toward me, you know, being an older person, and I think they had some idea that I was worth looking up to some.
Hollis: Those shows were so physical. They’re jumping around, they’re bobbing their heads. They’re playing these instruments as hard as they possibly can—I haven’t known Seth Avett to have a guitar and not pop a string, not a day in his life. I used to keep a spare pair of guitar strings in my back pocket back in the day because it was popping off—all the time. There’s way cooler people that handle that now, but I remember constantly having a spare thing of strings in my back pocket.
I was the original merch girl, OK? The O.G. merch girl, that’s me, did not even know that that was a name back in those days, but I was responsible for every t-shirt, every CD, every poster, every sale, whatever show it was that they needed. If I had to hop in a car and get into a van and go on a small tour with them, I hopped in the van and we went on a small tour, and I handled all the merchandise.
The first shows, I remember obviously Fat City. There was a place in downtown Concord called George Washington Bookstore and Tavern, and that was always a big show because there were a lot of people from the area. And then around here, obviously, Neighborhood Theatre was huge. I was the New Year’s Eve girl as long as they were there. (Ed.: The Avetts played consecutive New Year’s Eve shows at the Neighborhood from 2004-06.) I remember being in dive bars. I remember one Mexican restaurant that we went to repeatedly. We were all over, and we were relying on the kindness of some people who lived in these cities to let us crash on the floor or on the couch. So we kind of had to figure stuff out that way.
Tommy Tomlinson, journalist: We used to live up near Puckett’s, and we went to see them there around 2003, ’cause we moved in ’04. At the show, (Dolphus) had a briefcase with their CDs propped up on the bar, selling them out of the briefcase. That was the first time I knew any of those guys. I don’t think I’d even heard any of their music before this.
I got two things. First of all, I thought they were really good, and I’d never really heard anything like that, and I couldn’t believe three guys could make that much noise with acoustic instruments. And then I remember Dolph off to the side selling the CDs out of the briefcase. I think we bought a couple of them. I remember later having a hard time figuring out exactly how to describe it because, at the time, it was sort of a bluegrass band with sort of punk rock energy. Somebody—I don’t know who—described it as “Civil War stomp.” And I thought that was pretty good. Because of their look, too—they had sort of the old-timey sideburns, which of course they change every six months; it’s like how other people change their wardrobe, they change their hair.
But I just remember three guys just playing the shit out of those instruments, and even then Scott had the kick drum, and he’s playing the banjo at the same time. It’s just an incredible amount of sound coming out of these three guys. And there were probably 40 or 50 people there, and clearly some of them had seen them before, and other people like me were just like, “Who the hell is this?”
Laurie Koster, friend: Dolph got to be a good friend of ours. There was this one time at Manifest, and he was about at a breaking point. He was trying to make a living, his family was growing, and he’d put everything he had into The Avett Brothers, and he said, “They’ve got to make it. By the end of this year, if it doesn’t happen, I have got to move on.” That was probably around 2003. Then, all of a sudden, it turned the corner. Almost overnight, it happened.
Tommy: I think that’s probably around the time “Americana” became a word that people applied to this type of music. And there were starting to be radio stations, like WNCW, where you could listen and hear that kind of stuff. But they were different even in that genre because their music was more youthful and older sort of at the same time.
A lot of it at the beginning was banjo-driven, but it wasn’t bluegrass. With that sort of pounding beat with the kick drum—bluegrass generally doesn’t have drums, so you had this guy pounding his banjo like he’s playing rhythm guitar in a rock band, and he’s got the kick drum going, and a bass player, but an upright bass instead of an electric bass, and it’s on those old instruments. So I thought they were finding a combination that I’d not heard before that I thought would really be appealing to people. I didn’t think at the time they would be, 10 years later, this constant touring machine they’ve become, where they get big crowds all over the country and parts of the world now, but I thought that the recipe they’re putting together, they can make a living doing that. And they sure have.
Track 4: The Perfect Space
(Ed.: MerleFest, held every spring since 1988 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, is the world’s pre-eminent festival for roots and Americana music. The Avett Brothers have played it nine times: from 2004-06 and again in 2008, ’10, ’13, ’15, ’17, and ’19.)
Dolphus: I guess the thing to me that probably helped as much as or more than anything is when they first got onto MerleFest. I do know that MerleFest was a thing that made people sit up and take notice, and while the guys were there on the grounds at the festival, they really won people over.
Tommy: That was how Alix and I knew they were getting big. We went three years in a row, and the first year we went, they were way off in the corner, and, like, 50 people there. The next year we went, they had one of the big side stages, and there were 500 people there. The next year we went, they were on the main stage, and there were 3,000 people there.
Ted Hagaman, MerleFest director: I was at the college in 2004 when they first appeared here. I guess the first time I ever met them, we had gone to the Americana Music Awards week in Nashville in 2003. I can remember, we were out at dinner, before the awards show, and in walk The Avett Brothers with their manager, Dolph Ramseur, and their agent, Paul Lohr, into the restaurant. I really had not heard much about them. At that time, I was over the food and hospitality section for the festival, so I was kind of getting my feet wet and everything. But I can remember the conversation at our table was, “Those guys are really climbing fast. They’re going to be something down the road.” And I’ll always remember that. I can see them in my mind, exactly where we were sitting and what was said. They seemed like really nice men and, you know, sharp-looking.
Then of course I saw them several times at the festival. We don’t get to watch a lot of the acts because we’re always busy, but I did get to catch part of their set and stuff, just to watch the crowd. You could tell that they were different. They had a real unique sound, and they were already cultivating a following.
Dolphus: MerleFest, people come from all over the world. They get, like, 80,000 people, and it’s a very diverse crowd. So getting in front of that crowd, and seeing that it really connected and they were kind of the hit of the festival—people sort of were, “Have you seen The Avett Brothers?” MerleFest was really, really crucial. When we got it the first time, I think the only people that I did not reach out to about the Avetts being on MerleFest was like—what is that station that’s a Middle East-type thing, like “algebra”? That’s the only—and I’m saying this jokingly—that’s the only media outlet that I did not reach out to about the Avetts being a part of MerleFest, because to me it was a big deal, and it still is such a big deal for an artist to get to play there.
I just felt like that was an opportunity for the band, and sometimes you get these opportunities one time, and you got to take advantage of it. If you don’t, you might not get it again.
I’ll just tell you about this moment. So we’re on this stage, and I don’t even know if they have shows on this stage. It’s a very steep hill. I mean, we’ve got it packed, and Barry Poss comes, and I’m sitting there, the guys start, and it’s like every single person there—and I’m talking 700, 1,000 people—singing every. Single. Word. And so the top brass at Sugar Hill, the Avetts were a little too rough around the edges for them—not for the younger people who were working at Sugar Hill, but the people in charge, they didn’t really get it. Barry, on the other hand, when he saw 1,000 people singing, he was like, “What the …?” I mean, he used a few choice words. They’re singing every single word to these songs. What is there not to get? This band is connecting with people in a way that is very rare.
Ted: I think they are a good match for our festival because they’re not ashamed to let people know that they value family, and we’re a very family-oriented festival. As a matter of fact, a lot of times they appear with their father on a Sunday morning for a gospel set before they take the stage to do their own act. They bring their sister on the stage some with them when they are here at the festival and actually spend part of the weekend with us rather than just an in-and-out. You can see them with some of their kids out around the bus area or in the backstage area. So I think they value the concept of family, and that’s a great match for MerleFest.
I mean, I think they’re world-class musicians. We certainly try to bring them as often as we can, because our fans love them.
Track 5: And It Spread
(Doug Williams founded EMR Recorders in Winston-Salem in 1993 and, starting with Mignonette in 2004, served as the recording engineer for two original Avetts albums, the deluxe editions of three more, two EPs, and assorted recordings by band members.)
Doug Williams, recording engineer: I was really unaware of the whole Avett Brothers thing until right before they called me to start working on Mignonette … Everyone in that band moved incredibly fast. I mean, I kind of was viewing them through the lens of what it was like working with a lot of metal and hardcore bands at the time, really adrenaline, pumped-up 20-year-olds (chuckles), lots of that kind of energy in the room. (The Avetts) were all very serious, but it wasn’t really anyone in that band who was a joker or seemed like they were just along for the ride. They were really focused on what they wanted to do, and they still had a developing skill set.
They didn’t sound like anyone else. So many of those kinds of bands sound like something contemporary that they’re listening to and copying. They had an original thing that bridged a bunch of different styles and eras of music.
Daniel: I’d been listening to them put Mignonette together over a period of months, and I knew that once people heard that record, they were going to go, “Yeah, this is something really special.” In “Denouncing November Blue,” there’s a bit in the song where Scott’s singing about something, and then Seth yells, “Volume one,” and it was a total goof; they’re recording live in this living room and that was what he yelled out on that take, and it made the record. And here they are five, six months later at The Neighborhood Theatre, the last New Year’s Eve they did in ’06, they get to that part in the song, and the whole crowd goes, “Volume one!” And it’s like, “Oh, my God, this is happening. This is happening on a way bigger level now than might have been happening two or three years before.”
Tommy: When they were first out there, I saw ’em a lot, eight or 10 times, professionally and not professionally. And I see them when they’re close by. We’ve seen them at Bojangles’ and that sort of thing. I’m not a Deadhead—you know, go out on the road for ’em and everything. But I’m interested in how they’ve chosen to evolve, because, especially that I and Love and You record—it sounded so different than the other stuff.
It struck me as them trying to say, “How do we make what we’ve gotten something lasting?” Because although what they did had been really successful, are people still going to go see that forever and ever and ever? Can you make yourself into something new? I thought the subsequent stuff, the Rick Rubin stuff, has been an attempt at that, with mixed results. I think some of it’s good. Some of it’s not so good.
You know, when you go to a show, I think people are really amped for their older stuff, just because it’s more energetic. At a show, people want to dance, they want to jump up and down and stuff. I find when I’m listening at home, I gravitate to the newer, slower stuff just because it’s richer to me, has some depth to it … and I think this is a credit to them, that they found a way to to be a good live band and a good listening-at-home band, because there are a lot of bands who are one and not the other.
Track 6: When You Learn
Hollis: I always thought they were going to be really powerful when they were together because they’re so close. And they speak the same language musically. They’ve always been humble and appreciative and kind, and they always hustle very hard to make their dreams happen. And they believed it. So I believed, because I believed in them, because I knew what good people they were. I didn’t need any convincing.
You know how some kids kind of start bucking the system and getting really rebellious, especially when your parents are trying to show you the path? They just weren’t like that.
Tommy: One thing about them that really comes through is earnestness, sometimes to a fault. It’s a heart-on-the-sleeve sort of thing. Like, “I’m going to read you my diary, and sometimes it’s really corny, and sometimes it’s really beautiful, and sometimes it’s both.” But there’s no slyness or subterfuge in the lyrics. You hear it, and you know what they’re intending to say in a very earnest and direct way, and I think that’s been true pretty much from day one. It’s not Dylan. You don’t have to take a class to parse what they’re talking about.
(Ed.: The Avetts regularly cover David Childers’ songs “The Prettiest Thing” and “Lucky Stranger” in concert.)
David: It was huge. I mean, regardless of whatever else happened in my life, that happened, and that doesn’t happen to many people. So I’ve always got a lot of gratitude, you know, just as a person having a sense of having finally written something that got noticed on a very large scale, on a large stage. Even though I spend my time playing, you know, for tips in breweries and coffee shops, they’re out there somewhere playing “Prettiest Thing” or “Lucky Stranger” for 30,000 people. It’s certainly a confidence-builder.
Hollis: It’s hard to explain how assured they were in this concept. It was almost like, “There’s no question we’ve got this.” Most people—I do this—second-guess themselves, and there’s self-doubt. I never heard self-doubt from either one of them in my entire lifetime of knowing these guys … and yet, they were appreciative of every single body that was in that room, every single opportunity that somebody gave them to get on a stage and the people who worked there, and it was nothing but love, to be honest. And I was laughing the other day, I was like, you know, I’m sure people want the story of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll. But there wasn’t any of it.
David: Watching them grow musically has been pretty astonishing. I think their lyrics are very thoughtful and very fresh. People connect to them. People see their lives reflected in those songs … Man, it’s really rooted in folk music, traditional music that was for working people, people who have to get up every day and get behind a mule and sweat and suffer with the things that life throws at you and enjoy the many good things you have, too. Hell, that’s nothing new. That’s what all good, effective writers do. I mean, go back to Stephen Foster, his songs, people were sitting around a parlor and heard that, and they started crying, because that’s their lives reflected in it. And that’s what the great folk songs do, going back for centuries.
Eric: I think as far as humans go, Bob, Seth, and Scott? Pretty high quality. What they lay down, what they’re doing, they’ve always been true. They’re not putting on any fronts. They’re not trying to be something that they’re not. They’re speaking their lives. They’re creating art with their truth. And I think that, regardless of how big or small somebody gets, that’s the key. That’s what it is. For those boys, it just blew the f— up, which is a beautiful thing—that they’re able to have great lives. And I think they’re people who aren’t malcontents about it. I think they’re enjoying it and can realize it for what it is.
Track 7: Tell the Truth
(Ed.: The Avett Brothers released Closer Than Together, the band’s 10th studio album, in October 2019—a record that, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in AllMusic, “positively teems with the troubles of 2019.”)
Tommy: I think it’s a move for them to be explicitly political in a way they haven’t been before, and, again, with kind of mixed results. I think it’s interesting, and I think it will push them and their fans, and we’ll see how people react to it. I think every act that starts doing political stuff worries who are they going to lose and gain or whatever, but at some point, if you don’t say anything, then that becomes your statement.
Dolphus: I don’t know, I’ve always felt like the message has always been in the songs. So is this the first time they’ve kind of tackled it head-on? Maybe. I guess some fans never want the artist or band they love the most to get politically involved. But it’s the guys making art, and if that’s the artistic statement, that’s the artistic statement.
Track 8: It Goes On and On
Hollis: It’s weird, it’s trippy, and it’s happened to me for a decade now: Like if I’m at Boudreaux’s, for example, and I hear a song in the background, and hear either Scott or Seth, every single time, I turn around to see where they are. Every time. Because I just recognize their voices. And I think, Did somebody call my name, or is Scott here? Then I’m like: It’s a song, Hollis. You’re listening to a song right now. So it still kind of trips me out when I go somewhere and I hear their songs.
Tommy: One of my favorite moments in doing that story with them was when they played Bojangles’, or whatever it was at the time. I went to the sound check, and I don’t even think Scott was there. It was Seth and the drummer, maybe Bob, a couple of other people around. And Seth grabbed an electric guitar, and they did “Dazed and Confused.” And it was really good—I mean, top-notch Led Zeppelin cover band version of “Dazed and Confused.” And I was thinking, They could have done that and probably gotten somewhere much faster than they did going the way they went. So they chose their path and stuck to it.
Dolphus: They’re great people, and their songs and their art that they make—we’re friends and business partners, but also I’m just a fan of the art they make. I still love their songs, and I still want everybody to hear ’em and everybody to see ’em.
David: Everything they’ve gained, they deserve it.