Avett family home a storehouse for memories

by Carole Perkins

An antiquated yellow lab and a frisky doberman pinscher are vo ciferous escorts to the front steps of the modest, wooden house se cured by a towering brick chimney standing sentinel to Jim and Susie Avett, parents of Scott and Seth. The living room is an humble assortment of the lares and pennants of Jim and Susie’s 40 years together. Scott’s oil portraits of he and his wife adorn the wall perpendicular to the bookshelf lined with Jim’s collection of vintage tomes. The 1930s upright piano where the Avett children practiced their lessons anchors the room, its high shelf sup porting framed photographs of weddings and grandchildren.

A black woodstove squats catty-cor nered, the backdrop for the “shows” that Scott, Seth and their older sister Bon nie rehearsed in their bedrooms and performed to their parents’ delight in the halcyon days of their childhood. Jim Avett, a gifted singer/song writer himself and loquacious doyen to the Avett clan holds court in a chair in the middle of the room. “Our house is a refection of what’s im portant to us,” Jim says. “It was always im portant not to stifle the children’s creativity, which we may have overdone,” referring to walls sketched with portraits and song lyr ics like hieroglyphics on primitive caves. Jim removes Seth’s hand-drawn portrait of the family from the wall, all five family mem bers smiling with their arms around each other. It is inscribed in Seth’s childish hand writing as “the best family in the world.” “Family is the only thing that lasts over the years, and it should be the first,” says Jim. “Strong family ties are the best thing a parent can give a child. From those ties comes a life that will reach its potential.” Jim and Susie moved to Concord from Wyoming to this rustic refuge en sconced by canopies of trees, given to them by the former tenant for “tax evaluations and lawyer’s fees.” Seth, the youngest of the Avett children, was four months old when they moved, “scraping his little legs on the concrete floor back before we had carpet,” Susie smiles. Upstairs in Bonnie’s former room is a col lection of Jim’s vintage guitars stacked like sardines, tagged like toes in a morgue with complete information about the purchase. Jim unfolds one from its black case and holds it to his chest like a beloved child, strummming “My Grandfather’s Clock” before crooning Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” “After forty-five years of playing the guitar, you’d think I’d be good at play ing it,” he says self-effacingly. “I know a lot of songs, love to sing, and that’s why Scott and Seth let me hang around.” The guitar evokes a sense memory. “I used to play the guitar for the kids a lot,” he recalls, “and one day Seth said, ‘Daddy, how do you do that?’ I taught him three chords; he went back in his room and shut the door. After a while he came running out saying, ‘Mama! Mama! Come listen to this!’” Seth bought his first electric guitar with the $30 he made picking three gal lons of blackberries he sold for $10 each, Jim says their passion for music started in their home. “We sang in the car, in the yard and in church. One Sunday, Scott was supposed to sing in church.” “The same church where their piano teacher went,” interjects Susie. “Well,” continues Jim. “Scott had a bad cold and we were wondering who was going to sing. Seth raised his hand up and said, ‘I’ll do it!’ He’d been listen ing to Scott practice and he just got right there and sang his little heart out.” Jim says Scott started with the piano, then the guitar, then the banjo.

“Scott doesn’t play like Earl Scruggs; he plays how he wants to play. This is how music progresses. We don’t all play or think the same way — the music comes out of our instruments. If the music’s bad, we’ll pick on the front porch. If it’s good, people will seek you out to hear it. “We wanted the kids to be influenced by Southern gospel because it’s the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the most ab solute, accurate and correct way of living,” says Jim, the son of a Methodist minister. “Last Christmas we sat here in the liv ing room and for three days we had people come in and out to record seventeen gospel tunes. So when we’re dead and gone the children can master it down and keep it for posterity. Seth is in charge of it now.” The first gig as the Avett Brothers with Scott, Seth and Bob Crawford was performed on a steaming slab of concrete with ban danas tucked in back pockets to wipe sweat from their brows at the local Wine Vault. Jim recalls, “The first night the owner paid them fifty bucks, the next time they played to a larger crowd for about two hundred. Scott and Seth said they’d come back to play but wanted four hundred.” “The guy said, ‘Nobody in Charlotte is gonna pay you four hundred dollars.’” Scott said, “We’ll see, you may be right.” “My sons are not presumptu ous,” Jim says, “but the next gig they did paid five hundred dolllars. “A couple of years ago, they played for a group of music executives in Nashville,” Jim continues. “They said it was the first new music that’s come to Nashville in the last thirty years. They compared their harmonies to the tight, close harmonies of the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. It was the finest compliments as far as harmonies go. “Scott and Seth’s tight harmonies come from being brothers with the same DNA. You can hear and match up better than anyone. You have the same stuff in your blood. Growing up, you could see the glee in their eyes when they were hitting it.” That creative strand of DNA comes from Jim, who plays music every Tuesday and Thursday nights in Concord. He oc casionally appears on stage with his sons singing the song “Signs,” recorded with Greensboro’s legendary guitarist Scott Manring in 1972 in an abandoned house off Friendly Avenue in Greensboro. “Seth came in one day and asked me if I had a copy of ‘Signs.’ I said I didn’t. He asked if I could write the lyrics down, so I did sitting right there at the kitchen table. He used that with my block handwrit ing on the jacket cover with the songs they wrote on Mignonette,” Jim says. Outside in the sweltering July heat, Jim and Susie stroll to the colossal barn, a bucolic backdrop to the property they just handed over to their children a couple of months ago. Corpulent cows moo as Jim schleps in barnyard muck, pointing to an upstairs room where Scott and Seth jumped as kids into fra grant stacks of hay. Scott’s old, white pickup truck hunkers underneath the other side of the barn, the back window garnished with an ECU sticker opposite a Nemo insignia. Scott was an arts and communications major at East Carolina University. Seth majored in printmaking at the University of Charlotte. Back-trackingpast the house Jim and Su sie turn by the chicken coop, constructed because Scott and Seth’s wives declared, “If we are going to live on afarm we should have chickens.” The family’s RV stoops beside a tall,brown building that houses Jim’s tools from his welding business whereScott and Seth worked summers when they weren’t scrapping commercialjobs with landscap ers and carpet cleaners. A large, grassy field isdotted with a veritable car show: A blue 1967 Impala crouches under anawning sharing company with Seth’s ’64 Ford; a se nescent emerald-greenvan plastered with peeling stickers and a metal Jesus emblem restsafter years of road trips with the band. “I like old music, old carsand old women,” JIm jokes. “’Bout twelve to fourteen years agoSeth and I went to an auto auction and I bought a 1964 Ford, mainlybecause Seth liked the car at least as much as I did. Af ter mucheffort was put into the old car, it began to be a pleasure to drive,which Seth did daily, although he had a pretty ragged 1963 Ford of hisown. Somehow he ended up owning my really solid ’64, and I ended upwith his less-than-solid ’63 model. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”Sitting back in his chair in the living room, Jim reflects on the AvettBrothers’ decision to sign a deal with American/ Columbia Records,working with nation ally acclaimed producer, Rick Rubin. “Youhave to position yourself to move on, to be in the right place at theright time and strike when the iron is hot,” Jim explains. “Theidea is to move on toward the goal, which has always been getting theband’s music ever more refined and presentable to the audience. Thenext rung on this ladder is working with the absolutely best in thebusi ness, and they are lucky to be doing just that. We’ll always begrateful for the successes the band has had and the continuance of thisjourney. Seth wanted to write something online so their fans don’tthink they sold out. These days’ record companies have keys to doorswhere you don’t even know where the door is. They can grease thetracks. They got what they wanted in terms of protect ing the integrityof the band,” Jim says. Jim and Susie say there’s been some talk abouta possible Pacific Rim tour, including Australia and Japan. “Susieand I always tried to expose them to life choices — you don’t know whatyou’re missing until you see the world,” Jim says. Recently, after ashow at Bonneroo, Seth, Scott and Bob stayed over night so they couldeat at the legend ary Pancake Pantry in Nashville. “There wasa girl who’s a friend of theirs talking to them. She walked away andcountry singer Keith Urban stopped her, and said, ‘Hey, are you withthe Avett Brothers?’” says Jim. “A couple of years ago Seth asked mehow he and Scott could ever pay us back. ‘Boy,’ I said, ‘I’m notkeeping a run ning tab. If I die right now, you’ve paid me back,’” saysJim. “’Every time I see someone out in the audience that re allylistens to you, it pays me back.’”