As the 45-foot, metallic-gray bus heads northwest on Interstate 76 through Pennsylvania, no one is lying or telling the truth. Sitting on a brown leather couch in the bus' back lounge, the older of the two Avett brothers, Scott, confesses he's holding something back. For all his honesty, working-class background and cackling laughs, he's not budging beyond ambiguity: "It's a big change. We're doing a big thing here. It's the biggest thing of our lives. It's huge. We're really honored ... but I can't go into details yet."
An hour later, Bob Crawford grins, as though he wears the full seal of the truth on his teeth. For six years, he's played stand-up bass in the Concord, N.C., trio that bears the last name of Scott and Seth Avett. Surely, Crawford knows the secret.
"Anything that takes a day-by-day commitment to development, you don't feel the change as much as the people do from the outside. For the past year, I've been saying that. But now it's undeniable," he says, pausing for an instant, as if resting on the precipice of the big news. "We're on a tour bus now. The change has smacked us in the face."
Today, this is all The Avett Brothers can admit: Tomorrow morning, they'll wake up on the tour bus in Concord, where Scott and Seth live with their wives. Monday morning, the band will fly from Charlotte to Los Angeles to begin working on a new album, the Brothers' 12th release in eight years. The songs will be culled from 35 simple demos Scott and Seth recorded in a Winston-Salem studio last December.
But where are they recording? And with whom? Classified, natch.
Two weeks later, it's not: The Avett Brothers break the news with a 311-word letter "to our dearest fans" on their Web site. In June, they entered a Malibu studio with Rick Rubin, the legendary record label head and music producer, who co-founded the pioneering Def Jam while still a student at New York University. In the past two decades, he's produced records like the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Johnny Cash's last 10 hours of music. Those Rubin sessions, the band wrote, would be released by American Recordings, Rubin's imprint that, since 1988, has claimed folks like Cash, The Black Crowes and Tom Petty. Two weeks after inking The Avetts deal, Rubin signed ZZ Top.
The Avett Brothers climbed steadily to this point. Over eight years, they've crisscrossed the country, building audiences one tour at a time. So many goals are behind them: selling out New York theaters, playing the Grand Ole Opry, wowing the biggest American rock festivals. But this new deal puts the band in a different league.
So maybe someone was telling the truth on the bus back in June. Durham-based cellist Joe Kwon has played with The Avett Brothers since 2006. He worked on the last record, Emotionalism, and now tours full-time as the ancillary fourth member. Kwon was an Avetts fan before he met them at a summer festival in Winston-Salem three years ago.
"I thought, 'Wow. That is special. That is global-worthy,'" Kwon says, smiling. "I wouldn't have joined on if I didn't have full belief that this band could change so many things about the music industry and the world of music. ... I never had any doubt."
"We've been coming to Pittsburgh since our very first tour about seven years ago," says Seth Avett, nodding toward the cheering crowd gathered in front of him on a sunny June afternoon. "Thank you."
The Avett Brothers are eight songs into the evening's set. The last number, "Solomon," is a love song that begins meekly, bowed cello and upright bass groaning beneath Seth's strummed guitar and Scott's black banjo. The brothers trade verses, one pouring into the other with lyrics of blood-red rivers, empty hourglasses and sheer self-doubt. By song's end, though, both Scott and Seth are playing kick drums with their feet, bashing worries away one beat at a time. Though the song's never been released, pockets of people in the audience know the words.
The Avetts' perspective on Pittsburgh is different today than it was in 2002. During the band's first tour north that year, the trio played for 10 people in a small music club. Today, the stage is surrounded by the tall buildings of Pittsburgh's downtown. More important, though, is the crowd of 2,000-plus that spills off the city square's scraggly lawn and surrounding sidewalks and into the closed city streets.
Crowds this size and much larger are becoming customary for the Avetts. Over the last eight years, the band has played and soon outgrown nearly every tier of venue: a Mexican restaurant in Greenville, The Cave in Chapel Hill, Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, The Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte. The trio recently commanded 1,400 people in Portland, Ore., on a weeknight and played for a full tent of 7,500 at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in June. The band has scheduled only one Triangle gig in 2008: July 26, when they'll headline the region's second largest music venue, the 7,000-seat Koka Booth Amphitheatre.
Two distinct demographics form the bulk of an Avett Brothers audience. First, young fans between their late teens and mid-20s reflect the band's exuberant core. Women climb atop men's shoulders, sweetly singing along with Scott and wildly shouting along with Seth. In peristaltic thrust, they bob to the thrum of Crawford and Kwon's de facto string-and-rhythm section. The older crowd—from just graying to fully bald—either mixes or separates from the younger sect toward the rear.
"First, you had the people our own age, or a similar age. Then they brought their parents, and at festivals they bring their kids. So you've got kids with parents and parents with parents," says Crawford, who booked that first tour by himself by scouring the Internet for tiny venues like an Irish pub in Indianapolis and a sports bar outside of Columbus, Ohio. The brothers had been skeptical about touring, but they returned from those 27 shows with $4,000 in profit: "That's amazing," Crawford says.
All along, The Avett Brothers and Dolph Ramseur—a former tennis pro from Concord who's released the band's records and served as its manager since 2003—have talked about building a following one fan at a time: Play as hard as you can for as long as you have, then stay late to shake hands, sign autographs and say thank you. The Pittsburgh crowd, nearly a decade in the making, reflects that idea.
But strategies for earning fans don't guarantee earning them, and a band can't cash its work ethic at the bank. Countless young acts embrace the same philosophies that have helped drive the Avetts, but most of them will never sell out a pizza parlor four hours away. Meanwhile, the Avetts are packing theaters in every American city they play, and it's not just the crowds that are getting bigger, either. The Avett Brothers have sold more than 100,000 records, including 50,000 copies of last year's Emotionalism. The band made its national television debut last May on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. "The Avett Brothers [won't] remain under the radar for long," Spin recently exclaimed. Or, as Fred Mills wrote for Harp in December, "I predict that The Avett Brothers will be appearing on the cover of every major entertainment magazine within two years—sooner than that, most likely. If they don't, I'll eat this review."
That's how enthusiastically people react to The Avett Brothers: This band's fans sing louder, smile wider and give more of themselves—sweat-and-scream equity, if you will—than you'd expect for your average club act. They buy loads of merchandise and generally have no problem breaking the cardinal concert rule: At a recent 700-seat show in Norfolk, Va., a few dozen people in the lobby wore Avett Brothers shirts. Another dozen stood in line waiting to buy new ones.
The next afternoon, as the band's bus pulled into the parking lot of the sold-out Birchmere just outside of Washington, D.C., four fans sat baking on benches in the club's asphalt parking lot. Doors wouldn't open for three hours, but they stood together, revealing four homemade baseball jerseys with red sleeves: "Team Avett," the shirts read across the front, pennant-style. Each "player" sported a different number.
Seven hours later, after the night's first encore, the four teammates stood smiling in the front row, singing in unison the simple refrain of "Go To Sleep," the last song the Avetts played. The sell-out crowd of 1,000 behind the ball team maintained the chorus. Their enthusiasm won another song.
Why do people care so much about these two Southern brothers and their acoustic songs? They've seen a banjo before, right?
"They're vulnerable in a way. They know they're not perfect, and sometimes people want to champion people that aren't perfect," says Ramseur, who remains the band's manager, eating fried fish in a Concord restaurant a month later. "Strings break. An instrument might go out of tune. But that spirit of keeping it real and honest and I'm-pouring-my-heart-out ... I've never seen the guys take a night off."
Indeed, The Avett Brothers treat every evening on stage like it is the band's last. Through nightly 20-plus-song sets that push two hours, the band steers a roller-coaster ride. When the momentum peaks with frenetic numbers like "Talk on Indolence," in which the brothers bark 137 words in the first 32 seconds, strings break mid-stanza. Instruments get swapped by the band's longtime tour manager, who stands in the wings, poised with a new banjo or guitar like a batboy. When the Avetts dip into sweet, soul-touched creepers like "If It's the Beaches," in which redolent strings guild lonesome major chords and forlorn vocals, those new strings slip out of tune. Such flaws are human. They're invitations.
"This takes me back to being 16 and playing in punk bands. If you can feel that again—that newness and that excitement of just being loud—man, it's just great," says Crawford, referring specifically to the portion of the set in which he switches to electric bass, Seth sits behind a full drum kit and Scott plays an electric guitar through a hulking amplifier. That feeling—of being swept up in the music, like a punk-rock kid in a sweaty punk-rock basement—also applies to most of his experience as the third Avett brother. Crawford was studying upright bass in a conservatory when he joined the band after a rehearsal in an empty Charlotte parking lot. Those kinds of moments—imperfect but triumphant—let him feel the joy of music every night.
"I wanted to play with these guys because there was something authentic about it. ... People ask about the sound a lot, and 'How would you describe the sound?' We've never practiced much," admits Crawford. "We've always just done it. 'Here's the song. Here's the idea. 1-2-3-4. Go.'"
At its best, The Avett Brothers' music sounds carefully unproduced, its conscious lack of gloss letting the full force of the band's lyrics—from boyish lust and firebrand defiance to matrimonial love and childhood nostalgia—connect on the other side. Fans don't leave Avett Brothers' shows dissecting accidental sharps and flats. They leave raving about the experience. The band knows the feeling.
"It's nights like this that I can't go to sleep," cellist Kwon says after the second encore of the Birchmere show. "I get in my bunk, and I'm wide awake. It was just so much fun. I'm on the biggest high right now."
Ramseur agrees. He made the six-hour drive from Concord with his 8-year-old son to see tonight's show, and minutes after it's over he heads back south. He estimates that he's seen The Avett Brothers play 375 times since he first saw the trio in a Charlotte bar in 2002.
"I told my wife, 'Yeah, I went to see this band, The Avett Brothers, my mom told me about.' She said how, 'Well, how did it go?'" remembers Ramseur.
His mother had read about them in Concord's daily newspaper and reported on the local bluegrass boys to her son, who had started his own fledgling record label. He wasn't into bluegrass but said he'd give it a shot, anyway. "I said, 'You know, I can't put my finger on it. I can't describe it, but you gotta see it.' It never, ever gets old. It's just an awesome sight."
Neither Seth nor Scott can explain the essence of what they do, either, but they both talk about how they've connected with music in the past and how people connect with their music now: Scott gets lost in the truthful voice of Townes Van Zandt, and a line from New York songwriter Ian Thomas helped Seth through a break-up years ago. In return, the brothers write candidly about their lives, hopes and anxieties. "Salvation Song" extols the virtues of family and friends, and a series of songs entitled "Pretty Girl from ..." details romantic misadventures with women from Raleigh to Chile. Scott's been married for five years, so his recent songs reflect both sides of love. Seth got married last year, and—as his brother suggests—his new songs carry the hopeful romanticism of the post-honeymoon glow. If you have a situation, The Avett Brothers probably have three songs about it.
"It's nice to feel like you have company, whether it's in misery or in jubilation," says Seth. "When you hear a song that you love to death, a lot of times it's because it struck a chord with you: 'He knows just what I mean.' That's one of the greatest things in music."
People talk about Rick Rubin for those Johnny Cash records, his industrial beat-turned-pop sensation for Jay-Z's "99 Problems," and putting the coltish Red Hot Chili Peppers in a haunted California house and telling them to write the ballad that became "Under the Bridge." But people generally don't talk about Rubin for failing to manage a Cash-like revitalization of Neil Diamond's career in 2005, his flaccid beat for Lil Jon's forgettable "Stop Fuckin' Wit Me," or the Rage Against the Machine cover album he produced. While Rubin's made a lot of really great records, he's also worked on heaps like Limp Bizkit's Results May Vary.
Naturally, the Avetts talk about the peerless portion of Rubin's résumé. "I would have been 11 or 12 when Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out," says Seth. "And all the stuff he's done with the Chili Peppers has been very influential and, noticeably, very important in our musical landscape. We have respected him all along."
"When I think of Rick Rubin, I still think of the Beastie Boys and Def Jam back in the old days when I was in eighth grade—listening to RUN-DMC and LL Cool J and watching Krush Groove," says Crawford three weeks after the bus ride, finally letting loose his version of the truth. A New Jersey native, 37-year-old Crawford is only eight years younger than Rubin, and the early hip-hop albums Rubin produced were important to him.
The band was certainly flattered, then, when Rubin's representatives came calling late last summer. Maria Egan, a Columbia Records employee, had seen the band play in New York in early 2007 after Nicole Atkins, another Columbia artist and former UNC-Charlotte music student who'd long known the Avetts, told her about the band. She loved the show and, in June, passed Emotionalism off to Rubin. A few weeks later, she and Rubin watched Avett Brothers concert clips.
"It was very clear that they had the full package. Scott is the consummate artist. He's a visual artist. Seth had written liner notes for Nicole's record, and it had blown me away, his prose," says Egan. "You started to realize that there was so much going on here. It wasn't just this kind of cool band."
That August, the Avetts were on tour in California. Before a show in Los Angeles, Scott, Seth and Crawford visited Rubin at his Malibu home. Sitting on the porch, the young band and the wizened producer talked about music and their plans. As the brothers did most of the talking, Crawford threw a tennis ball to Rubin's Yorkie, Henry, marveling at how Scott and Seth acted like themselves in the court of an idol.
"I just remember thinking, 'Man, these guys are great.' Here they are with Rick Rubin, saying this is how we feel about what we do," says Crawford. "He was impressed by their attitude toward making records and writing songs. ... He was right on the same page with it."
The Avett Brothers liked Rubin, and he obviously liked the band. But they were slightly skeptical that the deal would happen. After all, over the Avetts' eight-year career, dozens of labels—from majors like Universal, Virgin and even the Nashville wing of Columbia to independents like Sugar Hill, Yep Roc and Sub Pop—have made offers. But the trio remained loyal to Ramseur, who's taken on the label and the band's management as a full-time job for the past four years. When Ramseur first met the band in 2003, he had little to offer the Avetts other than his word and his work. In fact, not long after the release of the Avetts' Ramseur debut that year, he lost his job and was left moving furniture to pay the bills.
"I remember two things happening when I was moving furniture. Scott called me up one day and said, 'What are you breathing hard for?' I told him ... and he said, 'Well, I'm fired up now. We're all gonna work hard, and we're all gonna make it.' I knew they were special," says Ramseur. He alternates between "they" and "we" when discussing The Avett Brothers. "Then, I remember pushing this long cart, and I got a phone call that we'd been accepted for MerleFest. ... I knew we could make it."
And they have made it: Through decent album sales for an independent band but mostly through relentless touring and merchandise profits, the band and the label have made money. Touring in a bus is possible, as is making records in nice studios. Neither Ramseur nor the Avetts needed a major-label deal or a big producer. But this was Rick Rubin, the man MTV dubbed "simply the most important producer of the last 20 years." His long conversations with Scott and Seth over the next several months were about their songs, not marketing, their old-man outfits or their warm Southern accents.
"When I talked to Rick, I remember telling him, 'Rick, the main goal here is the art. We want to make great records. We never want to look back 30 years from now and have regret about making any artistic compromise," remembers Ramseur. "He told me he feels exactly the same way. That he would never ever want to put out anything that doesn't have the stamp of approval of the brothers. That's the same mindset we have."
Their tour bus points home, back toward the South. Three days ago, The Avett Brothers played a free outdoor show for New York's River to River Festival. Despite a last-minute venue change and a rainstorm, more than 2,200 people vied for seating in a high school auditorium. At least 1,000 of them didn't get in. On the way back down, the Avetts stopped in Delaware and West Virginia. Tonight, they'll play a sold-out show in Bristol, Tenn., and head to Concord by moonlight.
Less than a month ago, one could think of The Avett Brothers as a band that had achieved well beyond its means. They were, after all, two brothers who never toured out of the state in their previous bands and a bassist they'd picked up in a parking lot. The Avetts had never sought perfection, and their home remained a small record label in Concord that—Avett releases aside—sold about 10,000 records. They were underdogs advancing in the late rounds.
But, today, The Avett Brothers are part of the big music industry, the new contractors of SonyBMG Inc., one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. A record label representative insists they could be one of the biggest bands in America. They've already recorded 16 songs with Rick Rubin in Los Angeles, and—in August—they'll return for another session. Only two days into that first session, the brothers decided to change their approach to records. They'd always thought albums had to capture the energy of the band's famous live set. With Rubin, they decided to treat the record as a stand-alone piece of art.
But if they sound any different today than they did before they headed to California, it's only the normal wear and tear of the road. Seth and Scott still talk about home with the same romanticism, and they wax about the music they make with the same enthusiasm. Scott's grateful that, on this next record, the songs will reflect more collaboration between himself and his younger brother. Everyone talks about how close and honest their relationship is. They're as much best friends, it seems, as they are brothers. But the future could be household-name fame—or an audience not much bigger than it is now.
"I don't have any doubts that things could grow extremely large. It can get as big as the world will let it, and we'll accept," Scott says, laying on his bunk in the bus. "If we can stay true to it and it is accepted ... it can grow as big as it needs to grow. We're willing to step up to that challenge."
The Avett Brothers owe a great deal of their reputation to the honesty and personality within their music. Like the chorus of "Salvation Song" or the piano march of the new pop gem "Kick Drum Heart," people connect to those things. So there's a danger in real fame, if it happens: The band can no longer know the fans as they once did, and such status could get in the way of real life. As advance preparation, Scott limits his interaction with people at the record label, so as to keep his head clear of how big business may get. When Seth is home, he does as little band business as possible. He plays piano and spends time with his wife.
"If I—and we—have to make that transition on a very, very big level, it will be something we have to put a little thought into," Seth says, "and to an extent something we have to take in stride. We are asking for it, in a way."
CORRECTION (July 24, 2008): The relative ages of Scott and Seth Avett were switched in the print edition of this article. Scott is five years older than his brother.
"The Avett Brothers' major-label move" (July 10, 2008)
"Avett Brothers tickets sell quickly" (May 14, 2008)
"Old roots, new branches" (Dec. 19, 2007)
"Interview: The Avett Brothers: Keeping honest" (May 9, 2007)
"Record Review: The Avett Brothers' Emotionalism" (May 9, 2007)
"Music Briefs: Friday's Avett Brothers show" (March 8, 2006)
"Record Review: The Avett Brothers' Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions" (March 1, 2006)
"The Avett Brothers are a lot more than country punks" (Dec. 1, 2004)