Interview: Music and Life with Jim Avett at the Evening Muse
Music and Life with Jim Avett at the Evening Muse
I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Avett at his home a few weeks before his shows at The Davis Theater and The Evening Muse. As you turn down the Avett’s street, you are not going to find a bunch of fancy cars, huge houses, or pretension. What you will find is a home that represents the same values that he has instilled into his family that has allowed him to remain true to himself, simple, warm, and inviting. Upon my arrival, I was welcomed by the Avetts and their dog and led upstairs to a loft area where Mr. Avett was preparing for his upcoming shows. Just looking around, you could feel this was a place where some great music had been created. All four walls had guitars hanging on them. He had traded down his collection from 70 to only 55 now. His music stand had his book filled with songs and his style of set lists with detailed instructions on how his shows will go. No fancy stereo systems, just a little boom box with a cd player where he would let me hear some great new music that he will be releasing at Merlefest.
As we began talking, Mr. Avett held onto his iconic 1965 Gibson J-200 and discussed his background with me. He was born in Gastonia, NC but the family only stayed there until he was six months old. They then moved to Mt. Pleasant, then to Reeds, NC. Reeds is where he found his love for barbecue as the Lexington area is famous for its pulled pork delicacies. The next stop for the family was the small town of Hudson, NC, and this is where he calls home more than anywhere else. He lived there from about 11 until he went off to college.
Before college. Mr. Avett did a four-year stint in the US Navy from 1967-1971. He had already planned that after high school eight years would be taken out of his life for military service and college. The Navy discovered he had typing skills and placed him into an office job. He quickly learned two things from his Navy experience. He wasn’t the office type and, he wasn’t the biggest fan of authority. He did pick up a few skills that did shape him for the rest of his life, a little patience and his love of reading. He found he was able to get his work done really quickly and this left him bored, so he decided to start reading. The only other option to relieve the boredom, was a dartboard in the office. He became an expert in throwing darts. I am not sure if he still possess the expert dart skills, but his love of reading is still with him today. He admitted that in his youth he never read a book, but now he has about 3,000 books in his home, and their bedroom looks like a library. He shook his head and said that that Mrs. Avett has been very patient with his book collection as it has somewhat taken over their house.
After the Navy, Mr. Avett moved to step two of the eight-year plan: College. He went to college to get an education, not a job, he told me. After he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in Psychology, he felt he owed the state of North Carolina something, so he moved back to Lenoir, NC where he got a job with DSS. He found himself back in an office job. A job in which his impact would not be seen for 10 years if at all due to the issues he was working with. He is a man who likes to see the impact of his work, and this really solidified for him that the suit, tie and office life wasn’t for him. It was decision time for the Avetts. There had been some discussion between Mr. and Mrs. Avett about going to Alaska in the past. After a day at work, Mr. and Mrs.Avett a question:
“I want to go to Alaska, and I want to go now. Will you go with me?” Jim asked
Susie replied, “Don’t ever ask me that again. Wherever you are going, I am going. Whatever you are doing, I am doing. Don’t ask me that again.”
This love and trust has stayed with them throughout their entire marriage.
In true Jim Avett fashion, he gave his notice, they packed up, and they were on their way to Alaska.
Work on the Alaskan Pipeline was providing a lot of job opportunities and Jim had hoped that he could try his hand as a welder there. He had two years of trade school training as a welder and thought he could just walk up and tell them he was a welder. The only problem was that they were only hiring Union workers to work on the pipeline at that time, and Jim didn’t have that affiliation. Next stop, Wyoming 1974. He found in Wyoming that if a man said he could do something, he would get a chance to do it. If he had lied about being able to do it however, he would not get a second chance. He found through welding, he could see the work he was doing immediately and this experience set the groundwork for his own welding business, which he had until he retired.
S16: What do you think makes someone successful in their profession?
Jim Avett: Simple. Show up to work on time, sober, and try. These should just be average expectations, but is seems out of reach for many still. I always wanted the best out of my employees regardless of their race, sex, or status. I just always wanted to hire people who could do the job. I am a pragmatic man who accepts what doesn’t work with me and my limitations, and I do the same with others. I also think you should have more than one way to make a living. If something goes wrong with your hands, you need something in your head to be able to make a living. Ideally, you would have three of four ways to make a living.
S16: How and when did you start playing guitar?
JA: “I got my guitar at 16 and things were working out well for me. When I started, I learned three chords that my brother taught me. He was six years older than me, and he taught me an incomplete C, a four fingered F, and a G7. With those three chords I went out into the world. No one told me that a C on the piano and a C on the guitar was the same thing. I went out and played everything in C for about 6 months until I ran into this song.”
He began playing, All I Have To Do Is Dream, by the Everly Brothers.
“I was missing something and I didn’t know what it was. It was an A minor chord.”
He started into “You Send Me”, by Sam Cooke.
“I was able to impress much better looking people with more chords. That is why l I didn’t play sports, because I discovered beer and guitar playing and was on my way. At the time, I was too dumb to know better, but there are over 11,600 chords on this fretboard, but how many ways do you need to know to make a C? I am more into the lyrics end. I write some pretty good stuff. I still do like to play one finger notes however.”
S16: You mentioned your love of reading. What do you like to read and do you remember the first book you read in the Navy?
JA: I do remember the first book I read. It was Plough the Sea. It was about a government being overthrown in the Caribbean. I have about 3,000 books, mostly non-fiction history and western books. One of my favorite books is about a man named Ernie Shackleton. HIs story is a history lesson on perseverance and leadership, and he is one of my heros. Susie was also a reading teacher when the kids got older. My brother was a word smith, county manager in Cherokee, a newspaper editor, and a writer. Reading is all about fitting the pieces together.
S16: Any recommendations on where to get books?
S16: If Ernie Shackleton is one of your heroes, who else is your hero?
JA: My father is my hero. He was a leader. Wherever he went people wanted to keep him around. He would always tell me that is is easier to pull a chain down the street instead of pushing it. My mother and father always held high standards for the family. They taught me what to do. It doesn’t mean I always did the right thing, but I knew what right was. I did learn about the circle of life, and that is something that is missing these days in younger people. I thought my dad was the toughest man around, because if an animal had to be put down, he was able to do it. I didn’t think I could ever do that. As an adult, now I can. We have a couple of cows that will be at the butcher in a couple of weeks and I think the grandkids named those cows. This is the circle of life. They are alive because I keeps them alive and take care of them. We raised dobermans for 35 years. The toughest part was when you had a pup with something wrong with it. You didn’t have a choice but to put it down. It was my responsibility to handle it since I was the one responsible for what happened. I learned that from my father. My uncles were all in WW2, so they were also my heros.
S16: Your father having been a preacher, does religion still play a part in your life?
JA: Religion is a basic part of my life, but I don’t go to Church. I am not going to change much.. I am not going to get a whole lot better or a whole lot worse. I am very traditional. Religion gives you a high level view with lots of little pieces. By putting these all together it helps explain why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. It’s not always the way you like to see it fit together though. Religion has changed a lot. Mainstream church has tried to change theology to whoever walks in the door. I am traditional in my beliefs, but I would never push my beliefs on anyone else.
S16: I get the feeling people look at you like the father they wish they had. Do you ever get asked for advice from people?
JA: There are lots of young people at my show, and I will be 70 in a few months. Old guys have the best lies and the best experiences. I had a young girl from Alabama ask me what she should look for in a good boyfriend. My advice is, no musicians, especially drummers and bass players. They must like old country music, like to drink beer. It can’t be beer with cinnamon, chocolate, or kudzu. They should have some religion, because you know that they can admit at least one thing is bigger than him. If they don’t think anything it more important than them, you are going to have trouble. I have had a number of parents come up to me and say. What can make me a better parent? Short answer. Don’t do anything that will ruin your relationship with your kids. Don’t get caught up in what their hair looks like, their friends, a bad grade. If they get an earring, they will get tired of it. Young people take things way more seriously than older people. There are many more roller coaster and peaks and valley moments for them. It’s why old people hate young people so much, they have too damn much energy.
S16: What is an unusual fact that many people may not know about you?
JA: In Wyoming, I met a man who knew a man, that actually knew Abraham Lincoln.
S16: Where are you favorite places to play locally?
JA: I would rather play the Davis Theater in Concord and the Evening Muse in Charlotte rather than anywhere else I know around here. The Evening Muse is, to me, is the best place there is. The thing I like about the Evening Muse, if a place has a big screen tv or a pool table they don’t need me. They need a juke box. I don’t like to hook up. I don’t like electricity. In my opinion, the most talented person can sit down with an acoustic guitar here in the living room and can knock you away with their talent and the sounds they get from it.
S16: What do you think about about the music venues that have been closing down in Charlotte?
JA: I have played a couple of the places that have closed. I am sorry the venues are closing because they are a venue that filled a spot and provided a place for folks to perform. Others will come. You have to keep the faith. It is just a change and others will come.
S16: What do you think about country music today?
JA: In the ‘80s, the investment money came into Nashville at a time Country Music was making a ton of money. Money started running country music. Any time art meets money, money wins. You lose sight of your focus and what you are trying to do. Almost overnight you lost the crying in your beer, laying it out on the table songs to golden voices and overly orchestrated music. These artists were no more country than I am a jet pilot. It became more pop music, and that is what we have today. I am not interested much in it. I think it should be labeled Americana instead of country. My heros Tom T. Hall and Haggard were the real deal. You might not like their style, but they were the real deal in country music.
S16: Do you ever get nervous performing?
JA: No. I am prepared for my shows and I know I play my stuff better than anyone. When you do your own stuff no one knows the difference. If you hit a sour note, no one knows. You just say I wrote it that way. Now if you don’t prepare yourself, you may be nervous. I can remember being younger and being nervous on stage, but that was early on. I was less prepared back then. For a large show you have the ability to not focus on one person, but when I play a small house show like I will in Philadelphia, it is 35-40 people. You can zero in and they can zero in on you and there is room for judgement and i know there are some who will like me and some who wont. When someone talks bad about you they are saying a whole lot about them than they are about you. You need to realize a little more there on an individual. Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t like me. Believe this. There are some folks I don’t care for either. It is a fair exchange. I am very at ease with this. In my life I have no problem with that.
S16: What advice do you have for an artist trying to get in the business?
JA: If you want to go to Nashville, you just get on I-40 and head west. You will be flying until you get to about 20 miles outside of Nashville, and you will find that every garage band in the world is trying to get into Nashville. The way you get into Nashville is not to get on I-40, you have to get in the ditch. You have to do something different. Everyone is unique based on their DNA, and what you are looking for as an artist is to be unique. Either in your lyrics, your presentation, your appearance, something about you has got to be unique. Otherwise you are just like every other, they won’t remember you. If you are going to write music. You have to put things together a little differently than they have been put together. It’s all been done before. There are only seven notes. Be unique.
S16: How do your boys keep their music fresh and unique?
JA: They are always looking into the future always practicing writing travelling interviews any one of a hundred things. Takes every minute of their day. They now have children and they dote on those kids. I mean they dote on them. I think the boys are going to be like the Grateful Dead. I don’t know if they will ever have a number one hit, but I think they are going to be there for years. They change. Everything changes. When the boys were changing their style, they lost some fans and they were sorry that they lost them. They gained some too. You have to realize that everything changes. Nobody stays the same. Nobody sounds the same today as they did ten years ago. There is no need to get mad about it, just get used to it.
S16: I have seen you at your boy’s shows quite a bit just hanging out and meeting people.Why do you spend so much time with the fans? It looks like you have a lot of friends out there.
JA: What am I supposed to do, hang out and hide in the back? That’s the way you make friends and keep fans. A lot of people don’t have family, and they are a big part of the story. It allows us to get a little closer and share a little more than just going to a show. Scott and I are from the same cut of cloth. The last meet and greet the boys had was supposed to go from 2pm-5pm. It went from 2pm-11:30pm. Scott said he would stay there as long as there was somebody even if it’s till the next morning. You could put Scott and Seth in a room with 500 people and by the end of the night they would have made friends with everyone in the room. Seth made a comment at the New Year’s Eve Show when he called me out onto stage and introduced me as a ‘man we all know personally.’ I don’t know what it would be like not to do that with the fans and friends. Music can affect people in a way nothing else can. Chord progressions and the right lyrics do something to the right side of your brain that nothing, not even food or sex can duplicate. You name it, nothing. The fans need to have someone to say thank you to. I didn’t do anything, but it came together between them and the band. I wouldn’t be doing anything else anyway.
S16: Is there anything you would have done differently in your life?
JA: Absolutely nothing. Seth asked me the other day when we were at the flea market, “How would you describe your life?” I wouldn’t change not a thing. I wouldn’t go back and live a day over, because I would probably mess it up worse than I did the first time. Whatever mistakes I made, and I probably made a bunch of them, I would probably go back and do the same thing again. I don’t dwell on the past, other than if I can gain on it. I did the best I could. You aren’t blessed with 20/20 vision going in. You are going out.
S16: Thank you for spending some time with me Mr. Avett. I appreciate your time.
JA: I didn’t have anything better to do anyway. I’ll go pick tonight, but It caused me to stay in and do some business. I do feel a little pent up on a day like this. I have cows and a farm to tend to. I did need to stay in and handle these business items, so it worked out.
Showtime at the Muse
I should have guessed. When I walked into the Evening Muse, Mr. Avett was already talking to the folks who had come to see him. He is for sure a social butterfly, and that’s what we all love about him. He greeted me and asked if I had any trouble in. He is always thinking about others. I let him know that I had no problems and was ready to see a great show. One thing I did notice is that he made his way around the room thanking everyone for coming out to see him. Nothing is taken for granted with the Avett family. The little things that make people feel special are standard operating procedure for them. It was nice to see that Mrs. Avett and his daughter Bonnie were there as well. Bonnie would be joining him onstage for the evening. What a treat! Mr. Avetts sense of self-deprecating humor is funny. He was telling everyone how coming to see him wouldn’t be too impressive but the rest of the band is great. I was able to use my super spidey hearing to listen to people talking about coming to see him. Most of them had seen him before and were coming back to see him.
There were two young women who came from Raleigh and Forest City that came to see “Daddy Avett.” Again, the humor kicked in again and he said, “everyone is here because I am the Avett Brother’s daddy.”
The show kicked off with a pair of young ladies from Stanfield, NC: sisters Lauren and Lane. Lauren and Lane are actually their middle names. Kacie (Lauren) and Kellie (Lane) come from a musical family. Mr. Avett had told me their family was rooted in gospel music. There daddy was Baptist and their mama was Methodist, so they spent time growing up in two different churches. The Primitive Baptist Church they grew up in didn’t allow instruments, so this is where they were able to perfect their acapela skills. They made two announcements that were exciting. Their newest member of the band on bass is Kellie’s husband, and they are expecting a child. Soft spoken yet confident, they were able to showcase their vocal harmonies during the show.
These two sisters certainly are talented and were in tune with one another. The Hatley sisters have a timeless sound that everyone will enjoy. It will be interesting to watch them as their careers progress. They are going to be making great music for years to come.
There was a full house, standing room only as Mr. Avett took the stage. In true Jim Avett fashion, he started engaging the crowd with stories. His show is part comedy show, part storytelling, and part playing music. It didn’t take long before he had the crowd laughing, some of whom were snorting they were laughing so hard. This of course caused everyone else to laugh even more. Jim and Bonnie were joined by a bass player, and another young lady who had came down from Pittsburgh to play with the band. I must find out what her name was. She had amazing skills on her fiddle. One moment that I really liked was when Jim told everyone that they are all talented, but they don’t take the time to cultivate the gifts that they have.
“Take at least one hour a day to work on something creative,” he urged the crowd. That is one of the things I love with covering music in the area. It allows me to work on something creative to stimulate the part of my brain that my normal job doesn’t allow me to develop. As Jim finished up his set, the capacity crowd wanted one more song. He decided to end the show with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” where he and Bonnie harmonized together. Jim claims it is easy to harmonize with a family member because they share the same DNA and you know where they are going vocally. For Bonnie and Jim, yes, but I am not sure that holds true in every case. I don’t think I want to attempt it with one of my family members. Trust me on that one.
Jim Avett is not a man who cares about notoriety. Shiny things don’t impress him much. What you have with Jim Avett is a man who never took more than he needed and never stepped on anyone to get ahead. He calls this making an honest living, but this is something that is a rare commodity today. If he has more than he needs, he believes in giving it to someone who doesn’t have enough, and he doesn’t ask to be recognized for this. Thinking of others ahead of oneself, putting your family first. Leading by example just like his father did many years ago. What is Jim Avett proud of? He is proud that his three children will leave the world a better place than they found it. His feeling is that anyone who doesn’t want to live like that should move out of the way and let someone else give it a try.
After spending an afternoon and an evening watching him perform, there are two things Mr. Avett said to me that I will disagree with him on. He said that people think way more of him than they should and that people want to see him perform because he is the father of the Avett Brothers. I disagree. Initially, people may be curious about seeing him because he is the father of Scott and Seth, but once they see him, they are fans of his music as much as the boys. Mr. Avett is a good man, good father, great performer, and is family to all of those out there who have the pleasure to know him and be a part of his family’s life, even if it’s just that moment where they can say thank you for a few minutes.