(Photos by Jo McCaughey)
As musical hotbeds go, North Carolina doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but parts of this beautiful state might contain more banjo pickers, doghouse-bass pluckers, mandolin strummers and lightning-bowed fiddlers than Carolina pines. In the Blue Ridge Mountain hills and hollers that spawned Doc Watson, Ola Belle Reed and Earl Scruggs, new talent is being groomed every day. But the music coming down from the mountains is not what influenced Scott and Seth Avett early on. Growing up in the relatively flat south central North Carolina town of Concord, the brothers were drawn to Nirvana and Faith No More. Grunge, not bluegrass. Hard rock, not hillbilly music.
That changed in the mid-90s when they wound up at Merlefest, the late Watson’s annual traditional-music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where Gillian Welch and David Rawlings reordered their world.
“I was absolutely sold,” recalls Scott Avett. “I also saw a band called the Blue Rags, which were also pop. And those guys were also mingling with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show … We were hugely influenced by that.
“These guys [were] young, but they [were] playing blues, ragtime, bluegrass, something that I couldn’t put my finger on, and I was moved,” says Scott, 37. “It was like watching The Muppet Show or something. A brilliant band. I felt some sort of relationship to it. That’s why it led me to the banjo, as an ironic instrument.”
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It’s not ironic anymore, and The Avett Brothers’ hybrid of traditional and modern influences has helped carry their brand of Americana to the masses. Formally joining forces in 2001, they released several independent albums before being courted by producer Rick Rubin for his American Recordings label; their new release, Magpie And The Dandelion, is their third with the recording studio Zen master.
Though Magpie was tracked during the same sessions that produced their Grammy-nominated 2012 album, The Carpenter, according to singer/guitarist Seth, 33, this one “took a lot of living to create.” To their surprise, however, its themes seem even more relevant now than when they were written (some actually go back years; Seth started “Good To You” nine years ago). Songs that sound like breakup laments may not have been intended as such, but in the wake of his split from his wife, they now appear prophetic – even to him.
Singer/banjoist Scott, a married father of two, finds his own push-pull between career and family reflected in some of Magpie’s verses. And in the lyrics of the track, “Souls Like The Wheels,” one can almost visualize the struggles endured by Bob Crawford, The Avetts’ brother-from-another-mother bassist, who literally works to keep his child alive. His young daughter has been battling a brain tumor for two of her three and a half years; he has to wrest himself from her side to go on tour, yet he also needs to support his family. Make that families – biological and band.
The Avetts also lost a beloved aunt to cancer recently. And Seth has experienced some turmoil surrounding his relationship with Dexter actress Jennifer Carpenter, including speculation that it triggered his divorce, though his ex-wife has denied that.
This article appears in our November/December 2013 issue.