In the new documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, producer Rick Rubin explains why he initially decided to work with Scott and Seth Avett on I and Love and You (2009), the first of their four full-length studio collaborations. “Within the first 30 seconds of meeting them,” Rubin explained, “I knew that being around them would make life better.”
Judd Apatow, the co-director of May It Last, felt the same way while working with the brothers on the music video for Morning Song in 2013. After completing the video, Apatow and co-director Michael Bonfiglio continued to shoot footage—hundreds of hours over four years—even though they were unsure of how they would use it. “There was no sense of this being a commercial project or essential at this moment for any reason,” Apatow recalled to Filmmaker magazine. “There is something emanating off of them, which is exciting to be a part of. No one was paying us to do this. I just kept writing checks, and that went on year after year because it just felt like something wonderful was happening.”
May It Last premiered to a packed house at the South by Southwest festival on March 15, 2017, and HBO has announced that it has acquired U.S. television rights. In other words, many more people are about to discover what Rubin, Apatow, Bonfiglio, and a legion of devoted fans already know: The Avett Brothers are much more than a band.
A Short History of The Avett Brothers
Scott, 40, and his brother Seth, 36, began playing music together and in separate bands when they were in high school in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. While in college, they merged two grunge/rock/punk bands to form a band called Nemo, with an aggressive sound that featured a lot of screaming by Scott on lead vocals. After concerts, the trio of Scott, Seth, and bandmate John Twomey would wind down by playing quieter acoustic songs together. Scott picked up the banjo and the trio began to experiment with music inspired more by the traditional American songbook than the then-current Seattle sound. The spin off project, referred to as “Nemo Downstairs,” soon replaced the main band. Under the name “The Avett Brothers,” the trio released a self-titled EP in 2001.
That same year, the brothers met New Jersey native Bob Crawford, 47. Legend has it that Crawford auditioned for Scott and Seth in a record store parking lot by playing Going Down the Road Feeling Bad only a few weeks after picking up the upright bass. Twomey left the band shortly thereafter and the new trio of Scott, Seth, and Bob self-released Country Was (2002) and then signed with independent record label Ramseur Records. They released three full-length studio albums on Ramseur Records: A Carolina Jubilee (2003), Mignonette (2004), and Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006), as well as several EPs and live albums.
In 2007, cellist Joe Kwon joined the band, first as a guest on the influential Emotionalism, and later as a full member. Kwon, born in South Korea and raised in High Point, North Carolina, is a classically-trained cellist who enriched the basic instrumental lineup of banjo, guitar, and upright bass and allowed the band to achieve, as Seth Avett describes it, “a vague semblance of sophistication.”
According to Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but, he joked, every one of the buyers went out and started a band. Emotionalism (2007) sold more than 30,000 copies, but it certainly had a similar impact both in terms of building The Avett Brothers’ fanbase and inspiring other artists. While recording Sigh No More (2009), Winston Marshall told Rolling Stone, Mumford & Sons listened to Four Thieves Gone “three, four times a day.” “I still can’t get over it,” Marshall told the magazine in 2013. Some critics have credited The Avett Brothers, and Emotionalism in particular, with sparking popular interest in the modern revival of American roots music and paving the way for bands that have achieved greater commercial success, including Mumford and The Lumineers.
Significantly, Emotionalism also attracted the attention of mega-producer Rick Rubin, best known for his work with diverse artists such as The Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash. Rubin signed the band to his American Recordings label and produced the album that brought them to a new tier of commercial success. I and Love and You (2009) peaked at #16 on the American charts and went gold in 2016. Three more full-length collaborations with Rubin followed: The Carpenter (2012), Magpie and the Dandelion (2013), and True Sadness (2016). Magpie and True Sadness both hit #1 on the American folk chart, and True Sadness also hit #1 on the American rock chart, peaking at #3 on the Billboard 200.
If challenged to name a single off any of these albums, many radio listeners might have difficulty recalling the band’s biggest hits. A number of singles have charted on the Adult Alternative Song chart and the Rock chart, but despite the success of their albums, The Avett Brothers aren’t a radio band. Their music doesn’t lend itself to three minute singles and it is difficult to identify their genre and classify them. Rock? Folk? Bluegrass? Americana? Alt-country? Where do The Avett Brothers fit?
Consequence of Sound identifies their songs as “earnest folk ballads that read like great Southern literary works.” Rubin describes their sound as “a completely unique and original form of roots music.” Apatow dismisses concerns that they are riding a “trend” of “retro folk music” that will eventually pass. “I don’t think this is the type of music that is passing,” Apatow explains. “This type of music really is timeless, and it might fall more in favor or likely less in favor, but the Grateful Dead has stayed popular since the mid-’60s. I don’t see the Avett Brothers hitting a phase where people don’t want to listen to this.”
Unlike The Grateful Dead, The Avett Brothers are not a “jam band.” They are, however, like the Dead, a band best appreciated live and, like the Dead, they play a completely different setlist every night. Tim Mossberger, who runs the unofficial Avett Brothers archive website, tracks 345 original songs and covers that the band has played live over the past 16 years. In 2016 alone, The Avett Brothers played 145 unique songs at 87 shows.
Scott and Seth bring the same energy to The Avett Brothers concerts that they infused in the hard-rocking Nemo. During songs like Slight Figure of Speech and Talk on Indolence, Scott pounds his banjo and kick drum; Seth shows off his skills on the electric guitar and lets out the occasional scream. It is a wonder that they and their instruments don’t have stress fractures. But these frantic moments are offset by frequent interludes of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. As the crowd is recovering from a long, rocking number in which all seven musicians have abused their instruments, the stage may clear but for one or both of the brothers holding a guitar or banjo (sometimes with Bob and his upright bass). The stage will darken and the crowd will fall into a hush. You can hear Scott sing Murder in the City in concert a dozen times and still feel something special when hundreds or thousands of voices join him, as a choir, in singing the final words of the song: “always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name.”
“We are just trying to be genuine.”
In February 2017, the band hosted a four-day mini-festival at the Hard Rock Resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico, joined by artists including Brandi Carlile, Band of Horses, and Jason Isbell. One afternoon, Scott and Seth conducted a “songwriter’s workshop” on a small stage next to a pool, answering fan questions for over an hour in the hot sun. One fan opened the door to an illuminating exchange.
Question: “When you sing it’s very vulnerable, it’s very honest, it’s very raw and I think that is why a lot of us identify with you and want to be connected with you. So what are and how do you deal with the repercussions of singing so honestly and openly about your personal lives?”
Scott answered first. “I have yet to have a negative result,” he said, musing that “this is a conversation that has been going on in our minds for a long time and I don’t think that we’re at a definitive answer.” Searching for a way to describe his complicated thoughts on the subject, he began: “[w]e know number one that when we hear music that is where a vulnerability is being revealed, that it matters to us...”
Seth eagerly jumped in: “What does it [showing vulnerability] really do?,” he asked. “How does it threaten you outside of just showing that you are a human?” Seth shrugged off any concern about sharing “something that you’ve done that’s not so good or a bad time that you’ve been through” because, he reasoned, “there is no question that someone is at that moment going through a similar thing and by the time the record is mixed and mastered and the artwork is done you might be a little bit past it but somebody might be getting it right at the time they need it.” In other words, if by sharing their vulnerabilities and their heartbreaks they can help somebody else, it is worth it for them.
Seth shared that his mindset has evolved since the band got started. “When we were starting the greater element was, I know for me, wanting to show off, wanting to show off and show my talent and to show everybody that I could do it and what has happened over the last 16 years is that we have been embraced by ya’ll and it’s all changed and now the idea of showing off feels kind of…”
Scott then interrupted with “like a joke.”
Seth acknowledged his brother and then picked back up with a gentler word: “yeah, kind of goofy and if you’re in a bad place kind of gross, you know, but we are fueled by this camaraderie and this community that we are a part of now so that charges in a different way. Ultimately I think that we are just trying to be genuine and we know that might not be as exciting as we might want it to be or as pleasant as we want it to be or as pleasing for us, but we are just trying to be genuine with ourselves.”
Seth uses the word “genuine” to describe their goal in songwriting and relating to their audience. Apatow uses the words “sincere” and “completely authentic.” “They are trying to express themselves in a pure way,” Apatow explains.
Say Love: The Gospel of The Avett Brothers
If Scott and Seth Avett sound more like ministers than typical rock stars, it may be because they are heavily influenced by the legacy of their paternal grandfather, Clegg Avett, a Methodist minister. Although Clegg died the year Scott was born, Seth relates that “92 year old women” still stop him on the streets of Mount Pleasant and Concord to tell him how much he looks like his grandfather and how much his grandfather meant to them. Clearly the brothers are seeking to have the same kind of impact on a wider audience. “We want to write songs about things that matter,” Seth explains.
Sometimes together with their father, Jim Avett, and their sister, Bonnie Rini, the brothers sing traditional gospel songs that would have fit in nicely at Clegg’s Sunday services. The family recorded one gospel album together in 2008 as “Jim Avett and Family” and a follow-up album is planned to be released in May.
But Clegg was not a typical minister. “Clegg was a progressive, spiritual intellect, especially in comparison to his surroundings of Southeast United States in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” Scott told Bob Crawford’s The Road to Now podcast in August 2016. Scott explained that reading Clegg’s sermons “continues to be life-changing for me” and led him to read Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy and to reconsider the Christianity of his youth in deeper ways. Scott describes his spiritual journey, a “complex process,” as a search “to become myself, [my] proper self.”
“If you’re listening and looking,” Scott told fans at the Mexico songwriter’s workshop, “spirituality is in all of our songs.” You don’t have to look too hard. Even within the confines of love songs, the brothers lyrically struggle to understand their true selves and their place in the world. Love—romantic love and filial love—are constant themes, as are regret and temptation. References to depression and self-doubt surface frequently.
The most overt references to spirituality are typically in the context of mortality. “We only get so many days,” they sing in When I Drink. This certainty of death is most often framed as a reminder to focus on larger truths. One of their newest songs, No Hard Feelings, asks us to put aside our petty differences. “When the sun hangs low in the west/And the light in my chest/Won’t be held at bay any longer/When the jealousy fades away/And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust/And it’s just hallelujah/And love in thought and love in the word/Love in the songs they sing in the church/And no hard feelings.” The song ends with the repeating phrase: “I have no enemies.”
Scott and Seth both readily acknowledge that they are searching for meaning, searching for answers, searching for a way to push through the pain and temptation, the “cash and lust,” and find peace. “Nobody knows what lies behind/The days before the day we die,” they sing in Die Die Die. “We came for salvation,” they sing in the aptly-named Salvation Song. And then, significantly, they continue, “We came for family.” A few lines later, “We came to leave behind the world a better way.” In the last verse, they refer back to their role as songwriters: “They may pay us off in fame/But that is not why we came/And if it compromises truth then we will go.” Clegg Avett would be proud.
These lyrics reveal the fundamental message of The Avett Brothers. We are all in this together—we can make a choice about how to spend our limited time on earth and that while it is a hard choice, one that we must make again and again every day, we can choose community, and family, and love.
Consider the final verse of Living of Love: “Say yes we live in uncertainty/And disappointments have to be/And everyday we might be facing more/And yes we live in desperate times/But fading words and shaking rhymes/There’s only one thing here worth hoping for/With Lucifer beneath you and God above/If either one of them asks you what you’re living of/Say love.” That message, one that acknowledges uncertainty and the fact that we “live in desperate times” but still reminds us that “there’s only one thing here worth hoping for,” is a message that many hunger for, particularly today.
“Fans for life.”
Long-time manager Dolph Ramseur explained to The Huffington Post that when The Avett Brothers get fans, “we get fans for life.” Their fans agree. When asked why this band is different from other bands, consistent themes emerge.
“Their music transcends generations and musical genres,” says Amy Stanley Ramsey, “[t]heir music is truly contagious.”
Faye MacIntyre explains that she is “61 years old and [has] been a fan of so many musicians across every genre of music there is.” “For me,” MacIntyre continues, “with The Avett Brothers it’s a different feeling altogether… They have this way of making you feel like you are a part of something. You can only share it with them and other Avett fans which is why complete strangers become great friends. … I like a ton of music but this band, these musicians I love with all my heart.”
Sally Brodhead Freeman agrees with that sentiment. “As corny as it sounds,” Freeman shares, “their music makes me want to be a better person.”
For Lory Berlin, the key word is love. “Their songs are bursting at the seams with love, their fan interactions radiate love, in their interviews they express a deep love for their families, for being artists, for humanity. The main message of their music is always love.” Berlin continues, “the audience loves The Avett Brothers and they love you back. Their music sounds pure as a mountain stream—unbounded by genre, it carries you away. The songs are performed with a dedicated passion and emotional vulnerability, the lyrics have a steely intelligence and emotional resonance. The songs, bursting with heartbreak, humor, wisdom and love, grace your soul. An Avett Brothers concert breaks your heart, and then heals it again.”
Avett fans are used to being judged for their enthusiasm for the band and its music. Loving a band so unreservedly simply isn’t cool. But as Seth would say, what does showing vulnerability really do? How can it hurt you to show that you are human? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Like Faye MacIntyre, I am a big music fan. I listen to music all the time. I “love” a lot of bands. But I love The Avett Brothers. They are special. What makes them so special, I think, is that although they may not consciously be doing so, they are continuing the work of their grandfather. They are engaged in a kind of ministry. It is not exclusively Christian, but is deeply spiritual and, as Lory Berlin suggests, deeply enriching. For many Avett fans, surrounded by negativity and fear, their music is an anchoring reminder of the larger truths that bind us all together. When so many forces in our world seek to divide us, Scott and Seth Avett seek to remind us of the common humanity that unites us.
May it Last will show at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina in early April and at the Nashville Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee in late April. In early 2018, it will be shown on HBO. Millions of Americans, searching for hope and meaning in these times of uncertainty will find it in the timeless gospel of the Avett Brothers. Say Love.