Portrait of the Artist
Whether he's performing on stage or painting in his studio,
Scott Avett '99 '00 creates art that celebrates the creative
By Jimmy Rostar
t's the last week of December, and the Avett Brothers are playing the third of five back-to-back, sold-out concerts. Sweat flies, strings break and fists pump inside Asheville’s Orange Peel club as the band performs a string of their own songs and covers of tunes made famous by Townes Van Zandt and Bob Wills.
The audience cheers for an encore and the band complies, first with the ballad “If It’s the Beaches,” a song from their 2006 album The Gleam that’s been featured on the NBC drama Friday Night Lights. Then the concert ends with the anthemic “Salvation Song,” from the band’s 2004 album, Mignonette. As the song reaches the final chorus, band and audience become one as they sing together:
And with a new album coming out produced by the legendary Rick Rubin—the man who revived Johnny Cash’s career—many believe 2009 will be the year the band emerges as the next big thing in American music.
If that does happen, it’s unlikely the Avett Brothers—Scott Avett and younger brother Seth, a graduate of UNC Charlotte, with bandmates Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon—will follow the path of so many bands before them, from discovery to sudden success, followed quickly by burnout and oblivion. They aren’t performing for the fame, the money, the attention. “Salvation Song” tells you exactly why the Avetts came.
‘Day by day—that’s the key’
It’s difficult to define the type of music the Avett Brothers play. The San Francisco Chronicle describes it as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, the raw energy of the Ramones [which] allows them to express a full range of emotions and opt for honesty and optimism over irony and cynicism.”
Scott primarily plays the banjo, and he also plays the guitar, piano, harmonica, and drums. Seth’s mainly a guitarist, while he too plays piano and drums. The brothers share most of the singing and songwriting duties. Crawford is the bassist, and Kwon plays cello.
However you categorize the tunes, 2008 was a momentous year for the Avetts. The band released its 10th album, The Second Gleam, and continued building an ever-growing fan base through a grueling tour schedule. A visual artist as well as a musician, Scott showed paintings and other artwork at a gallery in New York City. On personal notes, he also became a father, and Seth got married.
This year is shaping up as an even greater seminal period, with the much-anticipated new album and another heavy touring schedule on the way. The Avett Brothers will play several shows with the Dave Matthews Band, including an April 22 concert at Raleigh’s Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek and an April 24 show at Charlotte’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. With all of that ahead, Scott says it’s more important than ever for him to keep focused on the family values he learned growing up in Concord, N.C., and the work ethic that earned him two degrees from East Carolina.
“I can’t think about the big picture too much and what’s ahead because it’s way too overwhelming,” he says during an interview in his art studio in Concord, a suburb of Charlotte. “Day by day. That’s the key.”
He credits his parents, Jim and Susie, for nurturing a love for family and the arts. A welder by trade, Jim Avett played guitar and had a collection of records and 8-tracks that he shared with his family. As children, Scott, Seth and sister Bonnie all learned to play the piano. Family sing-alongs were common, and the three siblings regularly sang with their father at church services. Some of those songs would make their way onto the 2008 album Jim Avett and Family, a collection of gospel tunes featuring the Avett patriarch along with his children, as well as Crawford and Kwon.
“As far back as our memory goes, it’s there,” Scott recalls of his first exposure to music. “The earliest memories are of whatever my parents were listening to and my dad was playing. I always remember this sort of mid-’70s John Denver vibe, and Tom T. Hall. Those old country and country rock things were really inspiring, and they really impacted us as kids.”
Interest in the visual arts also developed early, Scott says, recalling a game in which his father encouraged his children to create images out of simple shapes he would draw.
“They had art around,” Seth Avett says of his parents. “We weren’t a family of means—there wasn’t a lot of money—but if we wanted to hear music, there was a record player in the living room. We could hear Dad playing guitar and singing to us. There were some art books in the bookshelves, and there was a lot of good literature around.”
The brothers agree that the family bond has been essential in shaping who they are as people and as artists. “I’ve been very fortunate to grow up and realize how much that’s carried me,” Scott says. “Seth and I wouldn’t be able to do what we do if our parents hadn’t been so generous and forthcoming with supporting the music.”
Now a father himself, Scott says he even more deeply appreciates the importance of family as he and his wife, Sarah, tend to their infant daughter. “Our family has stepped up,” he says. “We just do things for each other. There’s no talk about how anybody needs favors returned or how anybody is on borrowed time or anything like that. As I get older, I realize how important that is.”
Coming to Greenville
The Avett Bros.
Live at the Double Door Inn
A Carolina Jubilee
Live, Vol. 2
Four Thieves Gone:
The Robbinsville Sessions
The Second Gleam
At East Carolina, Scott found a home in the College of Fine Arts and Communication. In 1999, he earned a BS degree in communication. A year later, he earned a BFA degree in art, focusing mainly on painting. “ECU was absolutely awesome,” he says.
He says his college experience was especially fruitful once he opened himself to the support his professors gave in shaping his craft. “ECU was there to offer whatever direction it was that I needed,” he adds. “It was there to guide me. There was nothing stopping me after I homed in on what I wanted to do. For that, I have ECU to thank.”
Leland Wallin, a professor emeritus of painting, recalls Scott Avett the art student as “an individual with enormous potential,” and he encouraged the budding artist to continue in his studies. “The works he did with me were quite beautiful—painterly portraits, lush brushwork and color, with considerable amount of control,” he says. “Scott was one of my outstanding students. He’s a very talented guy in many ways, quite diversified in his abilities.”
Scott also took an interest in printmaking and continues to keep in touch with professor Michael Ehlbeck. He regularly returns to campus to create elaborately crafted prints that commemorate the band’s annual New Year’s Eve and other big shows.
“I have the highest opinion of Scott—the work he does, the work ethic that he has set up for himself, things that he does on the road, things that he does at home,” Ehlbeck says. “He wants to keep his hands in the printmaking and in the painting. He continues to make prints and paintings because he feels it’s important.”
Scott says his music and visual artwork are pursuits that parallel and complement one another, adding that his time at East Carolina definitely shaped his dedication to both as career and artistic options.
“The same year that Leland Wallin said, ‘You’ve got to stay in this [painting]; this is what you’re obligated to do,’ I picked up the banjo and started playing,” he says. “So I committed myself to both of them at the same time.”
He sang in bands throughout his years at East Carolina. One, a rock outfit called Nemo, eventually brought Scott and Seth Avett together along with a few friends. In the late 1990s, a side project featuring acoustic instruments was born, and the Avetts began collaborating on songs over the phone. In 2000, Scott and Seth—along with Nemo guitarist John Twomey—released a CD under the Avett Brothers name.
Since that first album, the Avett Brothers have continued a period of intensive songwriting, performing and recording. Their songs focus on many aspects of the examined life—love, loss, regret, resolve, truth and honesty among them.
David Butler, who hosts an Americana music radio program on Guilford College’s WQFS in Greensboro, first heard the Avett Brothers’ music on a box set of Charlotte-area musicians. Later he saw the band perform at MerleFest, the perennial music festival in Wilkesboro. He says he knew he had seen and heard something special.
“They impressed me more than anybody I saw at MerleFest that year,” Butler says of that 2004 performance. Since then he has been to nearly 70 of their shows and plays the band’s music regularly on his program. He says the artistry of their songs keeps his interest engaged.
“I love them live, and I like the fact that you can see them several nights in a row and it’s radically different each night,” he says. “But to me, it’s their basic songwriting skills. They’ve got the ability to write great, amazing songs. Whether I’m listening to the studio things or listening to them live, it’s the songs that stick with me.”
‘They want to make great art’
In 2003, the Avett Brothers connected with Dolph Ramseur, a former tennis pro from Concord who owned an independent label called Ramseur Records. The Avetts have been with him ever since. “They want to make great art,” Ramseur says. “Their artwork is pretty much an extension of how they really live. They’re doing it the right way.”
Even as they achieved early success with Ramseur, the Avetts remained a small, do-it-yourself operation consisting of the band, the label, a road manager, a sound engineer, a booking agent and a distributor. Marketing has largely been by word of mouth and the support of fans who volunteer to hang up concert posters.
To date, they’ve sold more than 150,000 albums. They’ve performed in all but a handful of the continental United States, and they’ve done a string of shows in the United Kingdom. They’ve built a successful business model based on good will and a handshake—the band and Ramseur never signed any contracts with one another.
“I want the whole world to hear them,” Ramseur says. “I think they’ve got something that touches everybody. We started out just winning over a fan at a time and selling one record at a time. I feel we’ve grown at a great pace, and it’s just a good situation.”
Megan Westbrook ’08 was won over as a freshman at East Carolina when she saw the band perform in Greenville. She’s seen them perform about 25 times since then. “It’s real music and honest lyrics, and they’re such great songwriters,” Westbrook says. “There’s a wide range of emotion you can feel in their songs. They write what they feel.”
Their last two albums, Emotionalism and The Second Gleam, made it to the Billboard Top 200 chart. When Emotionalism debuted, it was No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart as well. The band has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and won awards from the Americana Music Association.
Scott Avett continues to immerse himself in visual work as well as his music. A self-portrait still in process is among a variety of paintings in various stages of life at his art studio. He recently began selling sketches through Envoy Gallery in New York, where he has shown his works on several occasions. And he still regularly visits Ehlbeck’s shop on campus to make prints, often accompanied by his brother.
“You watch Scott and Seth printing together, and it’s like they’re good friends who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years—and they’ve been on the road for 200 days together,” Ehlbeck says. “It’s a pretty unique combination for all of them, and I think it feeds Scott’s work.”
Working with a luminary
The music world sat up and took notice last July when the band announced that its next album would be produced by Rick Rubin and released on his American Recordings label. Ramseur will stay on as manager.
The Grammy-winning Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records, has produced albums by Johnny Cash, Metallica, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “It’s really amazing,” Scott says of working with Rubin. “Surreal at first, absolutely. The more we’ve grown, the more serious we’ve become as musicians and the more serious we’ve gotten as songwriters. The songs aren’t as light as they once were, and [Rubin] gravitated toward that. He gravitated toward the bigger, serious-topic songs.”
The band was prepared to surrender a certain level of creative control to Rubin as they made the record, but Scott says 95 percent of the decisions made were the band’s own.
Ramseur says the core organization that is the Avett Brothers remains intact. “It’s still a day-to-day operation,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot more hard work ahead, and we’re prepared for it. We could continue to put records out on Ramseur Records, and we could have done really well. But sometimes you’ve got to see the big picture and realize that if we partner with someone, maybe we can take this to a wider audience.”
Scott recalls that it wasn’t too long ago that he and his brother were performing songs in front of 10 people on a Charlotte sidewalk. Last summer, the band played to 7,000 people at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, near Raleigh. Whether the audience includes 10 or 7,000 people, the connection with them continues to be vital to him, Scott says. As he meets fans and hears their stories, he says he is nourished by their energy and feels a strong sense of obligation to continue producing art.
“There’s a real goodness to this that has kind of blindsided me,” he says. “Where I’m at in my life, I want to grab at that obligation, and if we can make it into positives, then we ought to.”
He pauses to consider his future in music and art. “I’m going to see to it that my skill and my craft are as well-refined in whatever way refined means,” he says. “I am going to educate myself and learn. But everything learned and established and achieved amounts to nothing if there’s not some type of good coming from it. That takes a while to get to.
“You can’t own enough to make yourself feel good. You can’t make enough to make yourself feel good. You can’t know enough to make yourself feel good. You’ve just got to do the best at what you do and try to return the favor by being positive.”