The Avett Brothers: Life and Art, Ambition and Vision

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Conversely, Seth’s “Bella Donna” focuses a direct line to vulnerability. His most tender offering on The Second Gleam-“Have you ever really seen me,” he aches, “Like I want for you to see me now?”-merges bleak and bluster into solemn desire. “At risk of sounding too flighty, ‘Bella Donna’ was a song that just kind of wrote itself,” he explains. “I wrote it in about 10 minutes. It was all just there for me. It wasn’t because it was just so personal, it was because it was in the air, I guess. We haven’t found a way to make writing easy. One song comes in 10 minutes, and the next idea takes three years.”

Now, North Carolina has turned out a few noteworthy songwriters.

Make that more than a few. In fact, simply rationing Scott and Seth’s favorites-Doc Watson, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Blind Boy Fuller, for a start-threatens to quash Ramseur’s bold proclamation. However, few know the vinyl treasures he’s pocketing right now. If the Avetts’ forthcoming collection pays out on its immeasurable promise (you are, after all, reading a magazine cover story about a band still tweaking an unfinished record), no currency will hold more value than “I and Love and You.” By turns poignant and profound, the elegant ballad effortlessly weaves triumph through drying tearstains.

“My hands, they shake and my head, it spins/Oh, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” the brothers sing, “When at first I learned to speak/I used all my words to fight/With him and her and you and me/But it’s just a waste of time/Oh, it’s such a waste of time.” Stop. Pay attention to this seamless strain channeled from the finest songbook: “That woman, she’s got eyes that shine/like a pair of stolen, polished dimes/She asked to dance, and I said it’s fine/I’ll see you in the morning time.”

“I pulled some vocal moves that Townes Van Zandt had used on a couple songs,” Scott explains, “and I wrote it like a Townes song. It was just verse after verse after verse. I love that because the song moves and never gets hung up on a chorus. That’s a true folk or country-folk song. But then Rick was like, ‘Man those two verses are just killing me. I want to hear them again.'” Voila. Rubin the structural guru has arrived. Start taking notes.

“As I recall, Rick said that if Neil Young wrote this song, in between every verse he’d say, ‘Helpless, helpless, helpless,'” says Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford. “It was Rick’s idea to have the ‘Brooklyn’ verse repeat. It already was a story, but having that made it a folk song. Instead of this rambling march of verses, Rick understands that music needs hooks. You need that repeated chorus that everyone can sing along to. I saw [children’s songwriter] Si Kahn give a workshop at MerleFest in the early 1990s, and he talked about how important that is. That’s what Rick brought to the song.”

“So, we cut out two verses, took the sixth and turned it into a chorus and took another and turned it into a concept and theme,” Scott continues. “Now, you have a chorus, a theme and bridge that ends up as an outtro and a whole new and refined song that keeps all the great elements of the verses. That doesn’t work for every song-and it didn’t work for a couple we tried-but you have to be able to flex as a songwriter.” Intricate word play especially fortifies the new songs “My Heart Like a Kick Drum,” “Standing with You” and the rasta-folk breakdown “And It Spread.” Ambition and vision never stray.

The brothers certainly strive for instrumental elasticity, too. Listen to 2005’s Live, Vol. 2. The most timeless swatches-in particular, “Pretty Girl from Annapolis” to “Do You Love Him” and “Smoke in Our Lights” through the dusky ramble “A Lot of Movin'”-are straightforward derivation of the bluegrass guitar-banjo-doghouse bass blueprint. But by Emotionalism in 2007, Sgt. Pepper had invaded the hills. Meanwhile, “Yesterday” discovered a neighboring holler leading into The Second Gleam.

15 Comments

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  1. What a great article on a couple of great guys. I have always admired their songwriting and glad to see it getting well deserved recognition.
    They are all good people, writing great music and putting on one hell of a show. They ‘put thier hooks into you” the first time you see them live, it is an amazing thing, what these guys are doing! God bless ’em!

  2. It sucks these guys have gotten so big. It was so great to see them at smaller venues. I’m not wishing them failure or anything, they are just too talented to stay a small band. I can’t wait for the new record, if its anything as good as Emotionalism its going to be great.

  3. The Avetts success in their lives is inexplicably deserved. I have been to so many of their smaller NC shows from the Orange Peel to the Koka Booth Ampitheatre. Every show is a different experience and they allow a different emotion every single show. I am so excited to see the brothers take their talent and passion to their desired levels. It is a great thing when we get the opportunity to witness real, raw talent. I’m nothing less than greatful to feel like I got to witness this kind of excellence!

  4. What a great write up on a great band.
    The words they sing go right to your soul.
    They’re amazing and we’re with them all the way, from Tremont to Verizon Ampitheatre(this summer w/ Dave Matthews).
    Tin Man, More Of, Solomon and Laundry Room are already awesome.

  5. I miss the small venues too… BUT going to a bigger show for me is like catching a scent in the air that takes you back to the kiss of your first love. I will never forget my first show in Chapel Hill.

    Music that lasts forever is worth doing right.

    Thanks for the cosmic vibrations!

  6. I’ve been a fan of the Avett Brothers for many years. They only grow fonder to me as time passes. Their music grows right along with them and let me just say…its a fantastic ride to be able to go along with them! I’m looking forward to seeing them (again) soon at the beginning of the summer in their home state of North Carolina.

    My first show was seeing them in chico’s restaurant in rocky mount, nc. What a surprise it was to be swooned by music that night! I was amazed and continue to be. These three gentlemen deserve everything good that comes their way. They give music what it has been lacking for so long….substance.

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