Jim Avett is the patriarchal archetype of a Southern man doing right by his family and his own values. His humility is palpable; his love for his roots, exceptional.
Raised in the NC foothills, somewhat near the home of the state’s darling guitarist, Doc Watson, Avett graduated high school and attended college briefly before braving the ranks of the Navy during the Vietnam War. Upon his honorable discharge, he took a job as a social worker before settling into a career as a welder for 35 years.
“I ran a business which built bridges 98 percent of the time,” Avett tells. “I like to see things get done and there was satisfaction in that. It allowed me to travel up and down the eastern states and pick with a great number of folks … learning a lot about life.”
While his work history kept food on the table, time spent with family happened in the vein of front-porch jams; he and his children sang and made music, something Avett’s own parents instilled in him early in life. Playing guitar since 13, Avett’s humility, insight, loyalty and thoughtfulness comes through in every song and his six-string. And the 63-year-old knows how to tell a great story —to observe, love and share in all the pain and joy that comes from life. Alongside his wife, Susan—to whom he’s been married 45 years and endearingly calls “Susie”—he resides in Concord, NC, on a farm where the family still square-bales hay and fetches fresh eggs from their chicken coops. Among their children are the eldest daughter, Bonnie, and sons Seth and Scott.
Yes, Jim Avett is the father of the famed Avett Brothers who seemingly have been taking the music industry by storm with their brand of Americana. But, to understand the depth of music Scott and Seth play, one first must hear Jim. He’s a true gem of a player, grounding a sound buried deep in the well of old country and folk. Here is where the Avett story really begins.
encore: Apparently, the Avetts are quite the musical family. Tell me how music came into your life and shaped you, and helped shape your family, from past into present.
Jim Avett: My mother was a concert pianist and my father a Methodist preacher who felt their children, in order to be be well-rounded people, should know the fundamentals of music. I had (beginning at 6-years-old) three years of piano, followed by four years of violin, and beginning at 13-years-old, tried for the rest of my life to learn to pick a guitar! There was music every day at our home. It’s important to understand how music fits together and produces for many people emotional feelings unattainable from any other source. Susie and I felt a similar responsibility to our children.
e: You’ve made a point to say you’re reared among the school of thought of “learning the importance of hard work and an honest living.” What does that mean to you exactly? How did you endure this and pass it onto your children?
JA: I had heroes in my life—my father, my uncles, WWII veterans, teachers, neighbors—who taught me not to be scared and not to expect others to do for me. An honest living requires me to leave this world better than I found it. I have tried to do that. My father told me at one time “it’s easier to lead a chain down the road than to push it,” meaning I should be a father by example. I have tried to do that.
e: How was it, getting back into the throes of music-making in 2008 with your children? What did you enjoy most about recording gospel music, and how does this genre move you? Would you say you’re a religious man?
JA: Getting some gospel music recorded was easy enough because we (our family) have sung at church for all our lives. My extended family gets together more than one would think and there is always singing. The gospel CD was recorded in our front room over a span of three days. It was great. It is easy to sing with family.
I like what is called Southern Gospel. It is old-time religion. Somebody asked Arthur Smith (a very talented and knowledgeable musician) what makes Southern Gospel what it is. He answered two things: 1.) It has the highest highs and the lowest lows; and 2.) It is theologically correct. I prefer well-written, effectively proven (time-tested), theologically correct gospel. Newer gospel songs have not had an overpowering effect impressing me as to their value either musically or theologically.
As to being a religious man, I think God gives each person a canoe to drive down the river of life. I see folks with their canoe turned backward, some in their canoe without a paddle, some going up the proverbial creek, some with their canoe turned over. Some want to come over and give me advice about how to row my canoe. Don’t bother me; I have enough trouble rowing my own canoe. I won’t offer advice unless you ask for it. At the end of the river is a dam which we all go over and must give our canoe to the next born. If that’s religion then I am a religious man but shy away from wearing it on my sleeve. Usually, you don’t have to ask if a person is a religious person.
e: “Tribes” came out in 2010; how does it differ from your most recent release, “Second Chance.”
JA: “Tribes” was an extended play effort having seven (I think) songs. It was an adventure of getting back to the recording studio to see if it would work for me. It had been a long time, and I’m glad to say it worked out fine. The songs on “Tribes” were written without publication considered—meaning they would have sat on my desk unrecorded if my family hadn’t been so urging that they be recorded.
“Second Chance” was the result of having enough songs to record which I thought people ought to hear. Not that they, nor I, am so good, but rather they have some enduring qualities about them.
e: What do you love most about classic country and folk; who are some of the legends that inspired you?
JA: An interviewer once said, “When you see the Avett Brothers you see a lot of energy; when you see their dad you see a lot of ballads.” I like ballads, story songs, songs that teach. My family had some great story tellers in it, and I come by it honestly. My heroes in songwriting from early on have been Tom T. Hall and Merle Haggard. They are the real deal to my way of thinking.
e: Can you tell me about the genesis of one of your fave songs from the album—why you wrote it, how you composed it, etc.?
JA: Inside the cover of “Second Chance” (which one has to physically buy to get) is a booklet which has the lyrics and writer’s notes, which explain what I was thinking when I wrote each particular song. I think it’s important to know what the writer was thinking, as it adds to the meaning of the song. In the age of iTunes and Amazon selling the digital signals, one doesn’t get this information.
Each of the songs have special meaning when I wrote them, but I will just take the first one, a tune called “Decisions.”
Every person has to make decisions, and some decisions have no good alternatives. Most decisions are not fatal nor are they as important as we think they are. Some decisions leave scars (both outside to see, and inside, which are much harder to deal with). The hardest part of dealing with a decision is making it! You can see what I did with these thoughts at jimavett.com and listening to it.
You write songs to affect the lives of others. To teach or share. If you write songs for money or fame, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. Anytime money meets art, art loses. I don’t care if it’s written, oral, painted, etc., creating art for the sake of money causes a loss of focus.
e: Who’s the female vocalist accompanying you on this record?
JA: The harmony on “Second Chance” was done by a very talented female singer from Lumberton named Charly Lowry (leads a band called Dark Water Rising). I like harmony in everything. The Everlys were among my harmony idols!
e: What’s the ultimate goal in your music career?
JA: Ultimate goal? Not go broke as a singer/songwriter! No, it is to be effective in affecting other’s lives in a positive manner.
e: Any chance you’ll tour with your sons?
JA: There comes a time one needs to step back and watch one’s children fly. I fear I would be an albatross around the collective necks! It was my intent to leave it better than I found it, and I can do that by standing in the wings.
Jim Avett will play Saturday night at Bourgie Nights, in downtown Wilmington, with opening act, local musician Sean Gerard.DETAILS:
Opening Sean Gerard
Bourgie Nights, 127 Princess Street
21 and up; doors, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10 adv. at Manna (next door); $15 at door