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Essay

SCOTT AND SETH AVETT have been making music together since childhood. As the Avett Brothers, they’ve toured internationally for years and have released nine albums, receiving a number of Americana Music Awards as well as three Grammy nominations.

A little over eighteen years ago, I was welcomed into the Avett Brothers family, and ever since I have been treated like, well, a brother—someone who grew up on the family’s hobby farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina, rather than the Jersey boy I am. Though we don’t share blood ties, I still think of them as my kinsman-redeemers. Our ties are rooted in a certain ethics of brotherhood and community, a kinship that flows from them to me and every member of our band and crew. Our fans no doubt understand this. The music we make is replete with themes of salvation and friendship, loyalty and redemption.

Scott and Seth are the center of the Avett Brothers universe. Everything we do revolves around their relationship and creativity. But once they pull you into their orbit, as if by some science-fiction tractor beam, you become a part of their artistic star system and are expected to contribute in subtle and not so subtle ways. The finished musical product is the result of a mixing of complex personalities, God-given gifts, and the natural give and take that comes with being a family.

Along with my wife, Scott and Seth have been my greatest advocates. As bandmates and business partners, the three of us have often sat in meetings with record labels and agents who I’m sure have wondered, Who is this guy and what is he doing here? This can be daunting when your surname is Crawford, not Avett, but I rest assured these guys know my value better than I do.

Perhaps I first realized this one night at rehearsal about a year after I joined them. I was going through a terrible time in a relationship, and I had half-written a song about it that I wanted to get off my chest. I played it for them, and to my surprise, they wanted to work on it. It took under an hour to flesh out my idea, adding an introduction and guitar and banjo solo sections. One of them suggested a tag featuring chords not played anywhere else in the song.

It was as pure a collaboration as you can get. It started with my idea, but together we made something better, something no longer mine but ours. We made the idea into what it was meant be, and I walked away from rehearsal that night a little more confident in my own abilities, during a time when I was filled with doubt. The finished song, “Do You Love Him,” would appear on our 2003 record, A Carolina Jubilee. This is what the Avetts do as artists: they take an idea, something that does not fully exist yet, and follow it carefully to a conclusion.

When my daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011, I was sitting next to Scott as our plane from Frankfurt, Germany, landed in Charlotte at the end of a three-week European tour. Unable to quite understand what was going on, Scott shepherded me through customs, and he and our manager, Dolph Ramseur, came along for the two-hour drive to Chapel Hill. When we arrived at the hospital, Hallie was in surgery. During the six weeks she remained in intensive care, Scott, Seth, and every member of our band and crew took turns holding vigil in the waiting room and at my daughter’s side. When the band had to go back on the road and I couldn’t, I was promised that I had a job whenever I was ready.

When the hospital in Chapel Hill said there was nothing they could do for Hallie, and we moved our family to Memphis so she could undergo treatment at St. Jude, the band made sure our bills were paid and our family had everything we needed, including the emotional support, so we could focus on fighting to save Hallie’s life.

What made these guys this way? Where did the capacity to love so freely, and care so deeply—not just for me, but for so many—come from? And where is the jealousy? The rivalry? It exists. I see it in them as clearly as I see it in myself. Call it what you want: ego, greed, pride. A desire to be loved and accepted so strong that it can manifest as self-loathing. Our music is conscious of it and honors it. It does not deny the darkness that haunts us all of us, the hollowness at the core of our shared humanity. In some ways it almost celebrates it. But the darkness has not consumed Scott and Seth.

When I do interviews, I’m often asked: How often do those guys fight? It doesn’t take a rock ‘n’ roll historian to list more than a few iconic sibling rivalries: Everly, Davies, Gallagher. It is impossible to completely avoid conflict in any family, group, or organization, but honestly, I can recall very few serious fights between Scott and Seth. I can count on one hand the times the two needed to go behind closed doors to work things out, but even then I never heard a raised voice.

One night the three of us were backstage rehearsing a song that we had been playing for over a decade, “Distraction #74.” It was about an hour before show time, and Seth heard something that didn’t sound right to him. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that he and Scott were each playing different chords during the same part of the song. The clashing chords were diatonically incorrect, creating a brief moment of tension that was unpleasant when isolated—incorrect, but undetectable to less discerning listeners. It is important to Seth that our music is presented error-free, while it is just as important to Scott that we maintain an element of rawness in our live performance. For Seth, the solution was simple: play the right notes. But Scott argued that this was how he had been playing the song since it was written and recorded. He had a point.

I have realized more than a few times over the years that what I was playing was technically incorrect, but when the song was written I didn’t know any better, and no one else noticed, or cared. In the early days, our songwriting far outpaced our ability. We were playing acoustic instruments, but there was a punk-rock element that fell upon us naturally. I’ve run into something similar in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll recordings. The genre was defined by its teenage creators, and if you transcribe or analyze the songs you’ll notice mistakes periodically, but those mistakes add mystique. Hence the argument. I recently asked Scott if he could recall how it was resolved. “I played the right chord,” he said.

Scott and Seth are capable of submitting to one another when they disagree, whether it’s over a lyric, a chord, or the order of a set list. Although at times the discord is uncomfortable, it feels more pensive than aggressive. The Epistle of James tells us that there is wisdom in meekness. A willingness to yield is not a passive way of being. There can be no conflict resolution without one party pulling a demand off the table. Either somebody wins and somebody loses, or there is compromise, and no one gets exactly what they want.

The Avetts have a way of humbling themselves to those they have pulled into their orbit, drawing out their unique skills and talents. Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight. Drummer Mike Marsh and stage manager Pete Schroth, both talented visual artists, have developed artwork for posters. Fiddler Tanya Elizabeth also sings and plays guitar. The Avetts’ sister, Bonnie Rini, sits in on piano. Cellist Joe Kwon, born in South Korea, recently performed the classic American folk tune “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” in Korean.

Scott, Seth and I have been on a journey over the past eighteen years, sharing our songs across the United States and around the world. Along the way, life happened: marriages, divorce, remarriage. We’ve experienced the blessings of children being born, the pain of almost losing one. In the Avett Brothers, we share in life’s ups and downs even without blood kinship, and by offering one another redemption born of the generosity of forgiveness, the gift of collaboration, and the freedom to pursue our ideas, our musical family blossoms with creativity.

 

 

 


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