The Avett Brothers: Everything Is Spiritual
Photo credit: Crackerfarm
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While weathering one of their most difficult years individually and as a band, The Avett Brothers soldier on with a new record, a pair of drive-in shows and a continued commitment to finding a higher love.
Seth Avett can pinpoint exactly where he was when the earth stood still.
“We’ve been living in New York on and off—mainly on—for about 5 years now,” The Avett Brothers singer and multi-instrumentalist says, looking back to the early March morning when he and his wife, actress Jennifer Carpenter, decided to leave Manhattan and head South. “It was a week out from my son’s spring break from his school. We were a little early on getting nervous, just ahead of the curve. I was working, and Jennifer called and said, ‘What do you think about going home to North Carolina a little early for spring break?’ And I was like, ‘Why don’t we leave tomorrow?’”
So Seth, Jennifer and their young son Isaac packed their bags, rented a car a few days before they all dried up and, reversing a famous line from their hit “I and Love and You,” headed South from the Big Apple to Concord, N.C.
“I was born and raised in Concord, and I have a little house there that I’ve always maintained—it’s turned into this safe haven,” Seth says. “So, no matter what, we always end up going back to this little house.”
Seth’s property—which he’s owned since he was in his 20s— is located across the street from his older brother and band cofounder Scott’s house, which abuts their parents’ land, creating an unofficial family compound.
“That’s actually revolutionized this whole time because we were very fortunate, and very blessed, to still have some social involvement,” Seth says. “Scott’s youngest is only 7 weeks older than my son. So they’re very close. It’s been really hard for a lot of little ones to see other little ones, but we have a built-in social circle. We all get along really well, thank heavens; we’re all very close socially and geographically.”
As he recounts his experiences during the impactful few-month period that has upended his life, and will likely continue to define the live-music world for years to come, Seth is catching his breath the morning of Nov. 4. The 2020 presidential returns are still trickling in, and it’s been a roller-coaster morning, near the end of whirlwind year.
While The Avett Brothers are technically in press mode to promote their new, almost LP-length EP, The Third Gleam—the long-awaited next installment in their series of stripped-down, back-to-basics releases—and discuss their recent high-profile drive-in shows at North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, Seth can’t help but speculate about what life will be like post-pandemic.
“It’s weird—I’ve got a feeling that, one day, when things are ‘back to normal,’ and this is not a concern, we’ll forget how weird all of this felt,” he says with a laugh. “And that day will come. The way we that condense chapters in our past—it’s a wild thing. There is some blessing in how momentous a show like [those drive-ins felt] and how memorable they were, just because of everything that we all had to overcome to get to that celebration of music. And it wasn’t just a celebration of music, it was a celebration of connectivity, communion and humanity. It meant a lot. So it had a certain extra pressure to it, but it also had a certain extra victory to it. And we’ll take it anytime we can get it.”
Calling from his house a few days later, Scott admits that he’s been in a reflective mode too, reviewing the song ideas he started putting down at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as the period that directly preceded COVID-19’s impact in the U.S. So far, he’s found that his earliest material eerily foreshadowed what was to come.
“Some of the songs from 2019 and ‘18 sounded just as conflicted and disruptive,” he says. “They could’ve fit in at the moment when the Black Lives Matter [movement] hit. There’s unrest in them. It’s personal unrest and, to me, that’s reflective of some social unrest. I was thinking about that this morning and realized that there is no line between pre-pandemic and pandemic in the music that I’ve been writing, and that’s fascinating to me.”
For Scott, 2020 took a turn for the worse even before the novel coronavirus temporarily paused the live-music world. In late February and early March, the Avetts headlined a festive destination event in the Dominican Republic and, as soon as the band returned, Scott was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to have his appendix removed. As he recovered from surgery, Scott watched the news trickle in and quickly learned to accept his new reality.
“I was in this recovery-reset mode, which happens anytime I get sick or injured,” he says. “There’s that tender space and that sacred moment—reset, recovery and return. And so that just bled into this moment as we watched the pandemic. It definitely affected my perspective; we were operating more on what we didn’t know than what we knew. And I just tried to accept that instead of focusing on what it was taking from me.”
During the first two or three months of crisis, Scott adhered closely to the shelter-in-place regulations, using the unexpected downtime to heal and be with his family. As the pandemic progressed, he also carved out some time to speak through his “first language,” visual art. “Since the pandemic, it’s been very difficult for me not to be painting or printing because I have the resources here, and I don’t have to rely on anybody else to do it,” he admits. “To record or produce [music] at this point just takes more people. I go to my studio—it’s quiet. It’s solitary. That’s very much me.”
Currently, Scott is approaching the end of the large-scale painting that he’s been working on for three months. He admits that the creative process, though rewarding, has taken a lot out of him; and, like everyone else, he’s felt tied to the news more than he’d like to be. “I don’t intend for politics to be my master, so I try to do something bigger than stare at my phone,” he says. “I’m always putting myself in check—how much time gets spent looking at the news or thinking, ‘Who is going to be president? Who is going to be governor?’ You can’t trust any of it 100%; we gotta choose the lesser of 10 evils. We gotta do our part. I do believe in that. But I also just love making things. I’m a curious person. I love moving my hands, mind and heart.”
Instinctually, Scott says that finishing a visual art project will lead him back to music, and vice versa, and he’s starting to think about The Avett Brothers’ next steps. Just as things started shutting down across the country, the group was gearing up to start work on their next full-length album, the follow-up to 2019’s politically leaning Closer Than Together, which received somewhat mixed reviews. In Seth’s words, he and Scott had already “dove headlong into prep for the next full-length.” Lauded producer Rick Rubin, who has been a Yoda-like presence in the studio with The Avett Brothers since their 2009 breakthrough I and Love and You, was set to be involved in the proceedings, and Seth had a clear vision of where things were going, until everything, everywhere, fell apart.
“We were gonna start making the new record in April, and it was full of the most comical missteps and schedule changes,” he says, his words barely audible over his laughter. “I was so excited. I had all of these concepts lined up, and Scott and I were getting familiar with each other’s new ideas. We were going to go to California for three weeks, and I was gonna rent a convertible Mustang to drive to work every day. And it went from that to, ‘Let’s get Dana Nielsen, this brilliant engineer we’ve worked with on the last couple records, to come to us in North Carolina.’ We recorded [early albums] We Americans and Tell the Truth in the studio in my backyard so I said, ‘Let’s build on that—forget the convertible Mustang. We’ll make this one at home.’ But then Dana was like, ‘This thing is starting to get pretty serious, I don’t know if I can leave my family’ and then, we were like, ‘OK maybe we’ll work remotely.’ We went through six different iterations of this until it ended up being me and Scott in my little studio every day, basically creating demos, with me engineering. It went swimmingly, but it was very different than the plan to make a full-on record.”
Seth estimates that the Avetts have about 12-14 new songs, which they’ve passed along to longtime bassist Bob Crawford to play on, but they are not quite sure what’s next. They sent some of them to Rubin, but it turns out he also had a bit of quarantine brain.
“We gave them to Rick in April, but he only saw that he had the link two months ago,” Seth says. “About six weeks ago, we got an email from him, all excited about these new songs. We were like, ‘Oh, those songs.’ It’s just surreal, like everything else right now in this stuttered timeline. They feel like a time capsule; maybe we need to add a few things to that time capsule.”
Scott is quick to point out that there are different seasons in all his creative pursuits. Sometimes he and his brother will write alone; other times, they will work together. “If we’re in sync on an idea, then we do it. If we’re not, we just say, ‘Well, I’m not feeling it. Maybe you do it on your own or maybe we wait,’” he says. “Ideas are always coming in and always flowing.”
The singer and multi-instrumentalist says he does a lot of his best creative thinking while driving in the car, either listening to someone else’s music or fine-tuning an idea that he’s brewing on his own. “There’s some sort of symphony, harmony or unity with traveling—just driving in a car and feeling the emotions of the music,” Scott says. “If I’ve got errands to run or if just dropped the kids off at school, I may drive an extra 30 minutes or an hour the long way just to let things keep rolling.”
After restrictions loosened up a bit, Crawford—who is also based in North Carolina—started visiting Scott and Seth every few weeks, jamming with them for a few hours at a time. But, for the bassist—whose 11-year-old daughter Hallie was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was around two—the past few months have been particularly harrowing.
“My daughter is a St. Jude patient, and we came to Memphis for her brain tumor MRI,” he says, in late October, while his daughter is undergoing radiation. “After seven and a half years, she’s had a recurrence—she has a brain tumor. This year’s just been so hard for everybody. I lost my father at the end of February, right when COVID was just starting to come on our radar. Now over 230,000 people have lost loved ones. And then my daughter’s cancer came back—there’s just so much pain and heartache.”
The Avett Brothers’ evolution from a stripped-down side-project to arena-size harbingers of the Americana revival has been as slow and steady as the expansion of the band’s own lineup. Seth and Scott grew up around music—their father Jim, who they would later record with, was a welder who played guitar and their grandmother was a concert pianist. They were also inspired by their grandfather, who was a Methodist minister. The brothers would jam together when they were younger, before launching their own bands: Scott formed the rock combo NEMO with John Twomey in college, while Seth had some success with his melodic high-school project Margo. They eventually combined projects under the NEMO name and then, started playing more barebones, rootsy music with Twomey around the turn of the millennium. After trying out names like The Back Porch Project and Nemo Downstairs, they settled on The Avett Brothers and the more low-key endeavor quickly became their primary musical focus. Twomey eventually left and Crawford, who is six years older than Scott, signed on.
“I was 14 or 15 when Scott and I started making music together. Before then, I wasn’t in a place—just being the little brother—where we could see each other as peers, musically,” Seth says. “So, I spent a lot of time alone with the piano and the guitar, and a lot of time alone listening. And then around 16 or so, our personalities—and certainly who we envisioned ourselves to be as performers—fell right into what we were initially. I wasn’t just the little brother.”
Though, these days, the brothers split primary lead vocal duties and bounce around between guitar, piano and other instruments at a frantic pace, Seth admits that it took him a little longer to grow into one of their show’s natural focal points. “Scott’s just a ball of energy,” he says. “He’s a born center-stage frontman—he’s just a mercurial presence who has always been good at getting attention. [Growing up], he wanted the attention. He didn’t really worry about whether he had anything to say or not. It was more like, “I’m gonna be up here sayin’ it, and I’m gonna lead without the knowledge. He had to do it.”
Seth pauses to chuckle to himself. “One of his sons is just like that now, and it’s hilarious to see history repeating itself. But I was a bit more reserved; I’ve never seen myself as a frontman. I love the idea of being the Jimmy Page—a driving artistic force. But I didn’t have the ham mentality, or the star quality, that I’ve always seen in Scott.”
For his part, Scott sees their early dynamic as key to their growth as a band. “Seth had no problem early on—whether he knew it or not—delegating. He had no problem doing what he knew he was interested in and wanted to explore. Whereas I would, sometimes, just make calls for the entire band, not just onstage, but businesswise. I would sign us up for something without asking anyone, and that is a double-edged sword. You realize that, once there’s enough people involved, it’s gotta be more diplomatic and democratic. That being said, there are different roles and we are leaders in different realms; there are things that we’re good at and things that we are not as good at. We’ve gotten better at recognizing that, and he’s gotten more comfortable, over time, with fronting a song or taking charge of the stage. And I’ve got more worn and I’ve realized, ‘I don’t have to do everything and be everything all the time.’ I have to really check that because I’m very curious. I love living, and I love doing a lot of things. I love making a lot of different things and I have a lot of opinions. I’ve had to put myself in check. There was a time in my life when I thought, ‘The more ideas the better.’ I love music but, for me, [the stage] was also just a place to perform—to act and to get attention. So it wasn’t music first; I wanted to entertain.”
The Avett Brothers released their debut album, Country Was, in 2002 and began their ascent through the DIY-music ranks. Their combination of hyperactive punk energy, classic bluegrass instrumentation and jamband endurance was a bit ahead of its time. Before Americana turned into a genre buzz word, The Avett Brothers were welcome outliers on the festival circuit, winning over Deadheads, indie bloggers and folkies all across the county. Beginning with a set in a tiny tent on the night of Radiohead’s revered 2006 performance, The Avett Brothers became Bonnaroo regulars, mirroring the festival’s unique mix of hippie, hipster and high-fashion cultures. The same year, cello player Joe Kwon signed on, completing the group’s core lineup. After inking a deal with American records, the quartet released I and Love and You in September 2009, beginning their partnership with Rubin who, without sanding away their heartfelt melodies or nuanced arrangements, tightened and polished their sound. The group broke through into the mainstream—appearing on late-night TV, jamming with Bob Dylan at the Grammys and, eventually, headlining marquee spaces like Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks and New York’s Madison Square Garden. As they got bigger, so did their touring personnel.
“What has worked, for 20 years, has been a piece-by-piece build,” Seth says. “Some of it comes from economics, some of it comes from stubbornness, some of it comes from fear and some of it comes from safety—being hyper-protective over a project.”
Well before they reached those arena-sized heights, Seth and Scott had already decided to strip things down by releasing The Gleam in 2006 and The Second Gleam in 2008. Acoustic recordings featuring only Scott and Seth, the EPs were an chance for the siblings to get back to their roots in a low-key, independent environment.
“Scott and I are extremely close—that’s obvious to everyone,” Seth says. “We are extremely interested in each other’s spiritual journeys. We’re extremely respectful and interested in each other’s path, in terms of what our relationship to God is, what our relationship to this existence is. We are interested in what is making each other grow at any given time—whatever we’re facing. We connect in fatherhood, in our relationships with our spouses. We call on each other for a lot. And we are just as likely to get into a full-on conversation about something that I read in the Tao, as we are to say, ‘Can you grab my son and take him to soccer practice?’ So it goes from the concrete and the super logistical to the heights of spiritual consideration. The Gleam specifically benefits from that because there’s an unsurpassable level of trust; a song doesn’t even need to be collaborative for the piece itself to be ultra-collaborative. We trust each other so fully that we don’t even really talk about the songs. We sit in the room, maybe have a little discussion and just say, ‘Let’s do it.’ The specialness, to my mind, is in the lyricism. Within that, we are sharing our brotherhood—our trust and our willingness to unquestioningly back each other—with everyone.”
The Avetts view the Gleam series as an open-ended project and, though 12 years had passed since The Second Gleam, they never felt pressure to release another installment or put the concept to bed. But, after weathering heavier projects like 2016’s modern-leaning True Sadness and the topical Closer Than Together, it felt natural for the brothers to make The Third Gleam.
“Scott and I will often miss each other in terms of getting high on an idea,” Seth says of the new Gleam record, which they tracked before the pandemic. “One of us will have some idea for a concept record. We’ll just be so into it and motivated by it, but the other one is on a different wavelength, and then we switch places. But sometimes we land in the same place, and The Third Gleam is an example of that. And there’s always gonna be a response to the last thing. It took a lot of work to make Closer Than Together. And, spiritually, it took a lot of work to bring it to a point of calm and resolve in sharing it. Just the amount of conversations Scott and I had—a lot of the songs I brought to the table were songs that were gonna either get picked apart or possibly be used for political reasons. There were implications with that which differed from the songs that we had put out in the past. We were challenged with more compromises, lyrically. In some places, we had to get through certain things as artists, collaborators, brothers, family. It was super healthy but also challenging.”
This time around, Crawford, who is going on two decades with The Avett Brothers, was brought in as a third voice. He appears on about half of the tracks, which range from the banjo-friendly “I Should’ve Spent The Day With My Family” to the reflective “Victory” and the romantic “Woman Like You.” “The point of the Gleam records is that there’s less overdub, less production,” he says. “So there was just not a need for a bass on those first two.”
By now, The Avett Brothers touring configuration has expanded to seven members; Crawford says that they toyed with doing some equally stripped-down shows around The Third Gleam, which dropped in August, but those plans were jettisoned when COVID-19 touched down. With the exception of “Untitled #4,” which has been in their setlists for a few years, The Avett Brothers have yet to play any of the tracks live. Yet, Scott believes that the expanded Avett Brothers lineup might start playing the Gleam material when concerts resume. “They are certainly malleable in that way,” he says. “They’re a good medium for the band. We can let them live in several ways and we’ll let that growth happen as it should.”
Especially after weathering the past few months and replanting roots in North Carolina, Seth is just happy he had the opportunity to work on some new material with his brother, like they often did when they were starting out. “Though we didn’t realize it at the time, looking back on making The Third Gleam—after all of the conversations we had around Closer Than Together and after moving all that weight to get that record to a place where everyone felt good about sharing it—it makes sense. It took a lot of energy to turn those gears and so, of course, after that, we’re both gonna be like, ‘Man, I’ll bring four songs, you’ll bring four songs, we’ll sit down in a room and play, and that’s it. And so I now look at The Third Gleam as a very natural response to Closer Than Together.”
On August 29, The Avett Brothers officially returned to the stage for a huge, socially distanced drive-in show near their home-base at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The gig quickly sold out and the ensemble added a second drive-in date at the same venue in October. In an effort to keep things safe and scaled back, The Avett Brothers decided to revert back to their official four-person lineup for the dates, with Kwon flying in from California, quarantining and getting tested before taking the stage.
“We’re just not messing around with this. So to ask people to come from Nashville or to come from other parts of the country for rehearsals just didn’t feel right,” Crawford says. “Our fans are free spirits, but they’re also rule-followers. It went really great; weeks later, there were no cases that were traced back to our show. At first we thought, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do another one because we are taking a risk, and the last thing we wanted was for anyone to get sick at one of our shows.’”
They ultimately decided to play a second show, but just as they were about to announce it, Crawford learned that his daughter’s cancer had returned. The rest of the band offered to bow out of the engagement, but the bassist, who had to take an extended sabbatical from the group earlier in her struggle, made the final call to go ahead.
“We thought we were just going to Memphis for our daughter’s checkup, which we thought would be fine,” he says. “We thought we’d be gone for four days and now we are going to be here until further notice. I drove straight from Memphis to North Carolina for the show—it was a 12-hour drive. I woke up early the next morning, grabbed a bunch of stuff for my family, packed up and drove back to Memphis.”
After being off the road for so long—relatively speaking— Seth found that the drive-in shows actually dug up some early career jitters. Though he points out the cinematic quality of the experience and loved the old-school vibe, he says, “I was nervous in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time, or maybe have never felt. I wrap up some of my identity in performing, and that has gone away. So then, an odd thing to consider is, ‘Who am I? Is this part of me again?’ As soon as [playing live] was taken off the plate— and without any predictable date for when it will return—it just wasn’t part of me anymore. And it’s been such a big part of me for 20 years that—I just don’t know. You just flip the switch, and then it’s like, ‘OK, that’s not part of who I am anymore.’ Now, I’m someone who works on music all the time, but mainly alone. I go to the grocery store, and I spend time with my son and my wife, and look at the sunrise and look at the sunset. But I don’t stand up in front of thousands of people, shout, sing, dance around, and all that. But we did get to play twice, and we’re super fortunate, super blessed that this forum, the Speedway—which is a place that we have so much history with—is just 20 minutes down the road. And it’s specifically accommodating to something like this. It was just awesome. And that was our experience with NASCAR growing up. This is an industry that we are very close to and we know a lot of the people that are involved in it—we went to school with people [in that world]. Jimmie Johnson is a close friend. We went to car shows there as kids. It’s a place that has a cool dichotomy of feeling very big and grand, but also feeling very street-level and ground-floor in terms of personality.”
Crawford agrees, adding, “We’ve gotten so far away from the power of such a minimalistic setup. So, the first time, we were kind of rediscovering; and the second time, there was no time to even rehearse.”
Taking the stage just days before the most divisive election in modern American history, The Avett Brothers opened their second drive-in show with a fitting take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Then, they issued the song as a single and released a video directed by Emmy-winner Samuel Bayer, whose credits include Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”
“That song felt obvious for us,” Scott says. “[In terms of the drive-in], we held onto that inkling of familiarity that we haven’t experienced in a while. And that’s something I rely on quite a bit on the road. The second show felt a little looser, but it felt more natural and was probably slightly more enjoyable for me, personally.”
As they continue to navigate the difficult road ahead, Crawford, Seth and Scott are each on their own spiritual journeys, too. Crawford was raised Catholic, but began to explore his faith more deeply after his daughter was first presented with a brain tumor in August of 2011.
“I was actually on my way back from Europe with the guys, after a three-week tour,” he says. “I landed, I turned on my phone, and my wife said, ‘Our daughter’s in surgery—getting brain surgery—and it’s really bad. And they don’t know if she’s going to make it.’ Scott jumped in the car with me and we drove two hours. We got to the pediatric intensive care unit waiting room; I don’t know what came over me, but I gathered all the family members who were there and I asked if we could join hands and pray. I prayed to Jesus Christ and that was my moment of true conversion. I’m a believer, I’m a Christian, but I also believe all our faiths can be together.” Crawford began taking theology classes online and studied with the Reformed Theological Seminary, before getting a certificate in Christian studies, focusing on theology in the arts. In addition to other podcasts discussing politics and history, he is currently launching a series with Christianity Today.
The traumas he’s endured have also helped him see his career achievements in a different light. “Playing with Bob Weir, Bob Dylan and John Prine—those are memories you keep forever. They mean more than a gold record or a Grammy,” says Crawford, who played in a Dead cover band in another life. “I was 40 when my daughter first got sick and I’m 49 now. My wife and I have learned so much, we’ve been through so much with her. The question I haven’t answered is: ‘Can we find normalcy fighting cancer? Can we do other things?’ My son’s life is shaped by having a sister who is sick. So, for me, after my family, Scott and Seth have me first.”
Scott also admits that he is looking to channel the divine in his work. “Everything I’ve ever written is about me and God, it’s about spirituality,” he says. “Everything I do is within that relationship and that conversation, and I know, in my spiritual IQ, that I grumble and get grumpy and I get petty every day. But I just remind myself: ‘Every moment is as perfect as it can be.’ It is. And when someone says, ‘I hope this works out perfect’—well, there’s no other way it can work out. I read Everything Is Spiritual, which is a good introduction to that concept. But, I don’t want to write directly about that all the time. I like to code it a little bit, I like to talk about petty things and I like to talk about these little things on our little planet. I like to get worked up about it apparently. [Laughs.] But, there’s such a peace in that. And there’s such a place of observation in what can’t be moved. It’s a great life; I’m just trying to help anybody that we can along the way. And the whole point, just like marriage, is to try and mimic the love between us and God.”
For Seth, the future is a little up in the air. He says that he and his family had recently bought and renovated an apartment in Manhattan, after some back and forth on where they should settle. He had written a new song for an upcoming musical based on the Avetts’ music and had sat in on meetings and rehearsals while in the city. “We had finally said, ‘Lets really commit and be here’ and then this happened. It was very odd because, at the beginning, no one knew how long it would last and, eight months in, we still don’t know a lot. So many things have changed in our lives—a lot can happen in eight months in terms of turning the car around, changing gears, starting new relationships, beginning new chapters and entering different facets of our lives. So we’re still in North Carolina, and we look to be for quite some time.”
And, more than anything, he’s just curious about what’s next.
“I can’t wait to hear what people do when left to their own devices—how much of it is doom and gloom and how much of it is beautiful, self-sustained victory,” he says. “Whatever good people get out of their time alone or their challenges is going to lead to some great art. There’s bound to be something that blossoms out that’s gonna be surprising. After all, the Renaissance came after the Black Plague.”