by James Westhoff
Back in 2020, at a beach resort in Punta Cana, Mexico, Seth Avett looked out from the stage at a sun-drenched and beer-soaked crowd and tried to catch his breath. With his banjo in one hand, and his brother Scott standing to his left, he walked to the microphone and spoke heartfelt words of gratitude: “So many great people here, y’all. We thank you all. We are so lucky to be a part of your lives. Thank you for letting us. It’s a great honor and we thank you so much.”
For those who know and love the Avett Brothers’ music, the sentiment rings true. They are a part of people’s lives. For over twenty years, and across ten studio albums, they’ve been belting out rich fraternal harmonies, against a backdrop of truly insightful and life-affirming lyrics. The Avett Brothers aren’t just great; they’re helpful.
That Punta Cana event from 2020 was the annual Avetts on the Beach festival they organize every spring. That this band – composed of brothers Scott and Seth, as well as Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon – would love a good music festival is somewhat...unexpected. These Avetts are a serious band. They don’t sing about cheeseburgers. Undoubtedly, this festival counter-programming is designed to show their fans – and themselves – a different side of the band and their music. As younger sibling Seth explained to Parade in 2022, “It's hard to stay pent up or too stressed about anything when you’re looking out and there's dudes in tank tops and people all sunburnt. It’s a very wild atmosphere but a very friendly one.”
Sound familiar? The Avetts first appearance at BeachLife Ranch on the opening night of this September’s festival, like so much of their music, feels like a warm inevitability.
“We've always enjoyed festivals that were really good for the whole family and not just 25-year-olds,” Seth said. “Nothing against 25-year-olds, I really like festivals for them too.”
His focus on family shouldn’t be all that surprising. Family is a throughline that runs through the lives and songs of this deeply Southern band of brothers. Scott and Seth Avett grew up playing music and singing with their parents and sister Bonnie throughout their childhood in rural North Carolina. Early on, they focused on harmony, picking and strumming, and tradition, resulting in a sound that - musically and lyrically - is honest, earnest - and crucially - empathetic. It’s not a sound developed in a garage with your buddies; it’s a sound born of roots, an organic and emergent family sound. “Roots are essential,” older brother Scott Avett told Holler in 2021 “Roots, they grow food and trees and they are the foundation of everything.” That strength of musical tradition, the purity of their sound, comes through clear as a bell in their early albums, Country Was (2002) A Carolina Jubilee (2003) Mignonette (2004) Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006). The music both reflects and fortifies the brothers’ commitment to authenticity, which served them well when the one-two punch of the albums Emotionalism (2007) and I and Love and You (2009) - and a timely assist from legendary producer Rick Rubin - brought them out of obscurity and onto the global stage, to the Grammy awards, where they performed alongside Bob Dylan. Those roots allowed the band to improbably “capture the voice of an Information Age working class with songs that sound like the past,” as Parade put it in 2022.
After the massive success of I and Love and You, the Avett Brothers were everywhere - in car commercials, in movie trailers, in TV shows...on Letterman. Close your eyes and sing along; you’ve heard this one before – possibly while zoning-out in the cookie aisle at Vons: “There was a dream, and one day I could see it. Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it...” (from 2009’s song “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise”).
In the months and years following their career-making breakout success, with Grammy nominations, sold-out shows, and chart-climbing hits, it’s not hard to see these old souls, these torchbearers, these well-dressed sincere young gentleman, as fish very much out of water. Would success cloud their heads? Stifle the creative spark? Lead them down a road of self-indulgent debauchery? Of course not. Instead, they followed up their breakout album with The Carpenter, an equally brilliant set of meditations on their own success and popularity. On “Down with the Shine” they sing:
Down with the shine, the perfect shine,
That poisons the well and ruins my mind
I get took for a ride every time
Down with the glistening shine
A bellyful of high dollar wine
A fat hand a fat wallet too
Things change and get strange with the movement of time
It’s happening right now to you
“It’s happening right now to you...” It’s ultimately that empathy that connects the Avett Brothers to their audience. And what an audience it is. Watch a few clips on YouTube and you’ll notice how every song is a singalong. The crowd knows the words because the words are true. As Scott put it in the Parade interview, “I believe that we're connected, period. I mean, I believe there is a great consciousness among all things.... and I feel like art in general is an easier point of accessibility than a lot of other points that we look to.”
Since commercial and financial success came to the Avett Brothers, their lives and their act have become predictably more complex. There have been marriages, children, divorce, illness, pandemics, a Judd Apatow documentary, and changes in the band and its structure. But the albums keep coming, as do the moments of brilliance. 2018’s album True Sadness gave us what is arguably the band’s most transcendent artistic statement yet – “No Hard Feelings,” a song Scott Avett told the Today Show it took eight years to write. The interview itself is a remarkable, almost absurd juxtaposition, as Scott and Seth Avett sit with their fellow band members on a gleaming sound stage surrounded by cheering fans, bright lights...and Megyn Kelly. Scott, impeccably dressed, with his long hair neatly pinned behind his ears, hunched, avoiding eye-contact with both camera and host, his expression solemn and sincere, describes the moment the song came to him: “From the very beginning it was an emotional process...I’m driving the car through Statesville, North Carolina and the idea starting to talk to me, just making its way through my head and my heart. I start getting teary just from the first line coming along...and I was, like, well this is one of the ones where I’m supposed to be, like, a channel, conduit, some sort of process needs to happen where I’m open to the idea that’s coming along.”
When my body won't hold me anymore And it finally lets me free Where will I go? Will the trade winds take me south through Georgia grain? Or tropical rain? Or snow from the heavens?
Will I join with the ocean blue?
Or run into a savior true?
And shake hands laughing
And walk through the night, straight to the light
Holding the love I've known in my life
And no hard feelings
Lord knows, they haven't done much good for anyone Kept me afraid and cold With so much to have and hold
So what do they make of it all? The humble beginnings, the success, the fans, the music...being a conduit? A conduit! What’s the lesson? What does it all mean? Not surprisingly for the Avett Brothers it’s all about gratitude. “I don’t make a lot of it at all, I really don’t,” Scott told American Songwriter. “If a big group comes out to see us, we want to make sure we can play something they can sing along to and can dance to. I’m very grateful for all of it, that’s the extent of it.”
Well Scott, we’ll soon see you and your brother and the rest of the band, in the festival crowd, in our sunburns and tank tops, dancing and singing along.
The Avett Brothers play BeachLife Ranch September 22.