Avett Brothers – Sing out!
“I happened to be in high school” when those bands were in their prime, he explains, now all of 30. “I was very vulnerable to many trends, and they made a big impact on me. The fact that we were moved by those bands at some point in our lives — I don’t think everybody’s going to agree with us on that, nor do I expect them to.”
Another musical influence stretched further back into their childhood. The Avetts’ father was a musician who played music that Scott recalls being “more ’70s country-folk, sort of,” and while the kids didn’t necessarily follow suit stylistically, their dad’s ventures did instill in them the notion that they could play music, too.
“It was kind of there for both of us — well, actually all three of us, our sister as well — from an early age,” says Seth. (Their sister Sarah has contributed violin and vocals to several Avett Brothers tracks over the years.) “Ever since we were born, there was a lot of music around. It seemed like just a natural part of growing up with our parents, that music would be a viable option for us.”
Not traditional music, mind you. “The pop-pop-pop MTV thing, that was what we liked,” Scott confesses. “We didn’t want anything to do with any country at all. I never ever imagined that the banjo would be anything that I have. My first memory of the banjo would’ve been…Kermit the Frog, I guess, you know? That’s what it meant to me to play the banjo, really. I didn’t know anything about Earl Scruggs.
“I saw it for what it wasn’t, as far as, what commercials might make fun of some hick playing the banjo. Where, when I was 20 or 21 years old picking up the banjo, God, I realized that was something to really admire, and I really did. I got way into it.”
If the fact that he hasn’t been a trad picker since his preteen days, like many of his peers on the contemporary string-band scene, means he’s not as accomplished a musician as them, Scott seems at peace with that.
“There’s a lot of guys that can play so much better than me,” he allows. “I don’t spend my time trying to learn how to play better. I spend most of my time trying to write songs.
“I would definitely say Seth’s a better musician than I am, there’s no doubt about it,” he adds. “He’s got a longer attention span, he practiced more growing up, he followed through a little more. Whereas I got in a band, and all I wanted to talk about was lyrics.”
In terms of musicianship, probably the strongest cog in the Avetts’ machinery is bassist Bob Crawford. A native of New Jersey who moved to North Carolina in the mid-’90s to work in radio and TV production, Crawford was studying jazz guitar at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when he met Scott and Seth.
“Bob brings the most integral musical knowledge to the group,” Seth says. “He understands theory and understands — I hesitate to use this word — but the mathematics of music. He understands more than Scott and I do. He brings a lot of depth to the music which Scott and I, in our quest for singing our hearts out, would maybe skip over.”
Playing upright bass was something Crawford just sort of stumbled into. “It was right when I began the jazz guitar program that I picked up an upright bass,” he recalls. “I figured at the very least, it’ll sit in my house and it’ll be a cool-looking piece of furniture. I started playing it, and I fell in love with it. It was kind of like, where have you been all my life? And then everybody wanted to play with me all of a sudden, even though I didn’t know how to play it. They liked the way it looked, and I was in everybody’s band before you knew it.”
Crawford’s contribution to the Avetts extends beyond musical concerns, though. As siblings, Scott and Seth clearly could confine their full-time lineup to just the duo and hire backing players when needed to fill out the sound. That they count Crawford as a full-fledged Avett Brother speaks volumes.
“I feel like a flex player,” Crawford responds, when asks how he views his role. “It varies from day to day and situation to situation. When we’re playing a live show, I feel like a layer of the cake. And then sometimes I participate in the writing aspect of it, and then sometimes I’m supporting and cheering and just there. Sometimes just being there is a role in itself.”
One of the keys to the Avett Brothers’ success, in fact, is that people are there in all the right places. Beyond the band’s lineup, they have aligned themselves with solid allies in key operational roles.