Brotherly Love: The Avett Brothers Make Sense of the Chaos
This story was originally published in FlagLive August 10, 2017.
The Avett Brothers’ newest album, True Sadness, opens with “Ain’t No Man,” featuring Scott Avett’s twangy, grounded vocals and backed by a catchy bass line and an upbeat stomp-clap. It’s an intriguing start to the band’s latest collection of songs and leaves listeners grasping for what comes next. Longtime fans will likely be satisfied: the 2016 album as a whole captures the essence of the Avett Brothers — heart-wrenching, painstakingly honest and always reliable — simply, good music.
The band has endured tragedy and success together since officially forming in the late 1990s. They’ve attracted millions of fans and have toured across the globe. Yet, having a conversation with Scott isn’t exactly what you would expect. Instead of having an aloof air common with wildly successful musicians, he is personable and down-to-earth. In a way, it’s as if he doesn’t realize he is famous at all — the brothers are too wrapped up in what they love doing, writing and performing music, to care at all about being in the spotlight.
“We just followed our nose, and that’s who we are, and it’s happened and that’s what it is,” Scott says. His charming accent can be attributed to his hometown: Mount Pleasant, N.C., boasting just over 1,000 residents.
The Avett duo possesses enormous musical talent. Scott provides lead vocals, banjo, guitar, piano and kick drum, while Seth mans the guitar, some lead vocals, piano and hi-hat. They are joined by Bob Crawford, usually on bass, and Joe Kwon on cello and backup vocals. Creating art is not something that all siblings are able to do, but in this band, brotherly love is an enormous aspect of making music, particularly with the dynamic vocal harmonizing the two have absolutely mastered.
“There’s a very complex dynamic to it,” Scott says, in regard to working with Seth. “I still don’t know what the recipe or the chemistry is … I couldn’t be luckier to have that brotherhood, to experience it and live it. We’ve done it now for several years; there’s the ups and the downs, [but] the longer it goes the cooler it is.”
With eight full albums under their belts, the Avett Brothers have explored genres ranging from bluegrass, orchestral folk and contemplative ballads. They have pushed the boundaries of pop rock, at times approaching punk, and are rarely predictable. True Sadnessencapsulates this multi-faceted approach, and even explores electronica.
“It says a lot about the ability for our songs to go from country to an urban style,” Scott says. “It was a nice realization to see there are less differences [between genres.] Keeping it in such a restraint or a box is not necessary.”
Scott elaborated on the influence of technology on music, as both a good and bad thing. When used poorly, it can sound fake, losing much of the heart that goes into the original song. When used correctly, some computerization can add a whole dimension to a track. The band actually re-recorded songs four times before choosing a version that suited the album best; with each version, new characteristics of each song were revealed.
“It was very surprising and exciting,” Scott says about the songs with electronica influences. “It sounded like it could be in a discotheque.”
Even though they have the ability to explore other sounds, the vast majority of the Avett Brothers’ repertoire is decidedly Americana, with plucky banjos and harmonizing vocals between Scott and Seth. It’s a label they are proud of — the music is almost an ode to the romanticized American South, where families gather to listen to live music and children learn instruments from a young age. Time is passed by making and sharing music.
True Sadness, while it doesn’t outright reference the band’s hometown, definitely explores discovering a sense of home, of decency and finding beauty in simplicity.
“This is a simple thing you can do, but be in touch with home and stay in touch with your friends and family members,” Scott says, contemplating his upbringing in rural America. “If you travel, and experience a lot, you’re able to have an empathy and understanding for many different places. Going away is great education, but remaining and coming back is also good education.”
Even so, their music takes this romanticized version of the South and brings it forward in time. While it may linger on the porch on a hot southern afternoon, the Avett Brothers refuse to get lost in nostalgia. They represent a new generation of folk artists — think Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers — who are discovering a younger fan base with a global outlook appropriate for the 21st century.
“I view a lot of great hip-hop like folk music,” Scott says. “It’s music for people, among people. We’ve always strived for that and believed in that.”
Central to their music is its approachability; their ability to write songs based on the euphoria and crushing sadness of life. Furthermore, they make the music accessible. Folks from all walks of life may find something to enjoy or relate to in the music.
Take the song “Divorce Separation Blues” for example, which explores the end of a marriage. “I’m gonna keep on living/Even though I sometimes do/Fantasize about disappearing/Down in the ocean blue/Just to get some peace and quiet/From the warfare inside my heart/Well I’ve been under ear-splitting fire/Ever since we’ve been apart,” Scott croons, accompanied by an acoustic guitar.
The following song, “May It Last,” has a nearly opposite sound. It begins with strings — an unlikely choice — and the lyrics are gently hopeful. “May It Last” doesn’t have the same catchiness as some of the other tracks, but exists as proof for the band’s versatility.
While many of the songs on True Sadness have a somber tone–ranging from experiencing disappointment, rejection or feeling inferior — there’s generally a sense of redemption in the album as a whole. Undoubtedly, this sense of hope and looking forward to the future is felt at their live performances.
“The reason I love going to concerts is because I’m relating to [the music],” Scott says. “I’m sharing and people are relating. As long as that happens, it makes total sense.”
The Avett Brothers have an ability to make sense of the chaos of life — and fans are willing to let the duo point them in the right direction.
Join the Avett Brothers on Tue, Aug. 15 at the Pepsi Amphitheater, Exit 337 off I-17 south of Flagstaff at Fort Tuthill County Park. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling (866) 977–6849 or visiting www.pepsiamphitheater.com. To learn more about the Avett Brothers, go to www.theavettbrothers.com.