interview: jim avett

the avett brothers @ cat's cradle

I’m delighted today to share an interview with Jim Avett, who is probably best known at this point for being the father of Scotty and Seth Avett, aka the Avett Brothers, but who is, in his own right and for far longer than his boys, a talented and widely respected Americana musician and guitar picker. Jim released a new album, Tribes, in 2010, and is now doing some touring behind it. I was lucky enough to have a chance to ask him a few questions about music, songwriting, drinking coffee, and his boys, and his answers are behind the jump — don’t skip this one. Jim is a national treasure and his answers to my questions are worth a read.

Triangle residents can see Jim Avett at the Local 506 Wednesday night, 3/2, at 9PM with Reed Mahoney opening. Tickets are $6 in advance and at the door. Y’all, don’t miss this.

Behind the jump, read the interview.

1. Tell me a little about how you got started playing music. Was there a strong musical tradition in your family when you were growing up? What was the first instrument you picked up?

There was music and musical instruments in our home from before the day I arrived there! My father was a circut-riding preacher (who himself came from a large family that loved to sing) and my mother was a concert pianist (who became the church organist when she married my dad). My parents started each of their children on the piano as that instrument’s language is universal and teaches the basics readily. After 3 years of piano and 4 years of violin (at neither of which I excelled!) I got my first guitar at age 13 and it has been a challenge/struggle to learn since then! Rare indeed was a day in either my parents or my immediate family’s house that music wasn’t heard. I can’t imagine a day without it.

2. Where is your favorite place to play music? To write songs? To drink a cup of coffee?

I play most Tuesdays and some Thursday nights with a bunch of drunks and rednecks in a very relaxed atmosphere at an old service station. Most of the music is classic country (pre 1975 more or less) and early rock and roll (mostly 60’s era). That’s what we do best, and although the music nor the lyrics aren’t exact, (and they aren’t), it doesn’t matter. Enthusiasm goes a long way at these gatherings!

I piece together thoughts for songs where ever they occur, but sharpen them in an upstairs room set aside for me. Here I am surrounded by maybe 60-70 vintage guitars, various other instruments, and many hundred CDs of my favorite and some lesser known artists. I am lost in the thoughts of music and find the surroundings comforting.

I drink coffee generally at a small service station located a couple of miles from our house begining around 5 am or so. I rise every morning generally to carry on the tradition of old guys telling lies in competition! I am a professional.

3. Who’s the best musician you’ve ever played with? When and where was it; how did it happen? What was the overall experience like?

Let me state first my conviction that the best musicians are not the most popular musicians. So those I consider the best I’ve picked with you almost assuredly have never heard their names.

For 50 years of my trying to play a guitar I have had many, many opportunities to pick with hundreds of pickers, almost all of them better than I was at the time! From times in the Navy, to camp grounds (Susan and I did a lot of camping), to front rooms and front porches to clubs in California, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, S Carolina, Virginia, New York….these are ones that I think of immediately. There were some very, very talented musicians and it was in every case my honor to sit in with them. 3 outstanding local (North Carolina) guitar pickers come to mind: Nelson Mullis-Concord, Scott Mannering-Greensboro, and Jon Shain-Durham. Each of them are a pleasure to pick with because it makes music so easy. It’s a thrill when all the notes fit together.

4. What do you think of the new crop of American roots musicians? There’s been a revival of older styles being mutated and mixed into newer sounds; how do you feel about those sounds and that music?

I have no problem with the progression of music, and it progresses by experimentation.

I told our children (and others’ children also) to play the instrument the way you desire and are best able. Play the way you play not the way others play. I don’t think there’s a right way to play an instrument, maybe just the accepted way. If the music is entertaining folks will come to hear it, if not play on the front porch and entertain yourself!

Purists are purists only for the moment as music, like life, is constantly changing. One more thought… just being different isn’t going to bring success. The product has to have some enduring qualities (being well written, presented well, etc.) other than shock value.

5. Is there any musician working today that you’re really excited about?

I don’t spend a lot of time listening to popular musicians, or others’ music in the main, as it confuses my efforts to write my own songs. I do go out to listen to live performances and often find young musicians whose material or instrumental talent is very exciting. Most often these are listening room type performances.

6. I can’t let this go without asking one question about your boys; they played the GRAMMYs a few weeks ago, and then shared a stage with Bob Dylan. First off, tell me a little about how you taught them to harmonize like that, because I know they learned it from you. Did you watch — or attend — their performance? What was it like to see them on a major stage like that, as a father and as a musician?

We did not go to LA to see the show, but rather watched with family in the front room.

Parents tend to be prideful when others recognize the talent/worth of their children that they, the parents, thought they saw long ago. For Susan and me, the pride in our children would be there irregardless whether they ever made music or not. The appearance on the Grammy program was a great opportunity to get their music out to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard it, and that’s an honor for them and this family. Just being around Bob Dylan is an honor in its own right.

The whole point to being a singer/songwriter is to affect others with your songs. The show gave The Avett Brothers Band an opportunity to do this, and for that we are grateful.

The harmony was taught by singing in church, where I sang loudly. It was my style … to teach by example. They went on to sharpen it up!

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