You could trace The Avett Brothers’ music to a multitude of inspirations, but you shouldn’t forget one very important source: Jim Avett, their father.
In late April, the elder Avett attracted a sizable crowd to the Creekside stage for a gospel set on the final day of MerleFest, the famed acoustic festival in Wilkesboro, N.C. Later that night, North Carolina native sons Seth and Scott Avett took the main stage to cap the four-day event.
Between those two sets, CMT Edge caught up with the brothers and their fellow band members on their bus. Although the conversation initially covered a new album (The Carpenter) and their family roots at the festival, Seth and Scott spoke generously of their father, too.
“He kind of forfeited his dream of being a musician when he was younger, as our family grew. He stopped and put all of his work into building a welding company. He probably wanted to be a musician always, because he was definitely an entertainer, but he put it on hold during our upbringing,” said Scott, who is a father to a young son and daughter.
“Our ability to get into this world has allowed him to be there, as well. I mean, he’s doing his own thing. We don’t really get involved with a lot unless it’s appropriate. But it’s really, really exciting to see that many people watching him — and him doing really well, singing well and sounding good.”
The highly-respected festival is named for Merle Watson, son of the humble but brilliant guitarist Doc Watson. Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985. Doc passed away in 2012, making this year’s MerleFest the first one without him since the event’s inception in 1988.
Tying the two families together is easy. Seth Avett composed a touching essay for Garden & Gun magazine in the September/October issue about the first time he ever met Doc Watson. In the essay, the musician wrote that Watson “changed my understanding of how a song could be presented in sound and mood.”
On the bus, Seth noted, “Around that time in my life, I was still using power as a synonym for volume. So when I would see music and when it felt powerful, it was really loud. When I saw Doc, I realized how much weight he carried, and he didn’t have to be that loud. And he didn’t have to have that much electricity either.”
He added, “There was a lot of emphasis on melody, a lot of emphasis on character. He told great stories, but he could have said nothing between the songs and still could have carried a ton of weight. That was one of the first times I had seen that … as a growing musician, just seeing one guy with a guitar have so much to offer an audience, without any tricks.”
“A really settled-down masculinity is what Doc had,” Scott observed. “We were coming from a more frantic, younger, powerful thing, and watching Doc — he has that masculinity with that grace. His pitch is similar to ours, and his range is similar to ours. We listened to a lot of people who had a range that was out of reach, but for him to be able to put so much tone and so much character into his range, it was very inspiring to us.”
Band member Bob Crawford said he attended MerleFest in 1994 and 1995, then relocated to North Carolina from New Jersey in 1996. Reminiscing about his first time at the festival, he said, “I was taken by the family feel of it, the … .”
“Lack of danger?” Seth asked in mock seriousness.
“Lack of danger! I had come at that time from Grateful Dead concerts and that kind of world, and [MerleFest] was a very clean environment,” added Crawford, also a father of two. “It was very refreshing and added to that mystique of North Carolina. Being from New Jersey, it felt like an open space where you could really breathe and relax. My first day here, it didn’t take me long to walk around and feel relaxed. That’s something I’ve always connected with MerleFest.”