Anyone who is a fan of the PBS culinary favorite, A Chef’s Life, has certainly heard the familiar twangs from North Carolina natives, The Avett Brothers. Here is a brief, yet not so brief, history of the musical brothers, along with my favorite version of the theme song we all hear every Thursday night on WHRO.
Around the turn of the millennium, the brothers finally wrote their first few halfway decent guitar/banjo-based songs and celebrated this victory by imposing their muppet-like energy upon the unsuspecting coffee shop and bar-room patrons across the state (mainly just in Concord and Charlotte, though, really). Around this time, Bob Crawford came out of the woodwork. He was a man full of vim and vigor, natural ingenuity, humor, and goodwill. He was also a natural-born hustler, though slightly weary of the everyday hustle. It had, up to that point, included (but absolutely was not limited to) selling shoes, fronting various bands, working 20-hour shifts on movie sets, taking girls on dates in a 1972 4-door Chevy Impala, and selling grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lot of Grateful Dead shows. Throughout his life, music had called, enthralled, and entranced him. It would ultimately lead him to take countless road trips, a second college degree, and independent study in the thousands of hours. Crawford had migrated south from New Jersey in search of new beginnings, truthful folk music, a job on a film crew, and possibly, a decent cup of coffee. He eventually found each, though not without some struggles. One of the first would be in convincing Scott and Seth that a viable career in music would not magically show up at the front door, merely because they had wished for it and written multiple drafts of their eventual Grammy Award acceptance speeches. Crawford felt, bizarrely to the brothers, that in order to pursue a life in music, a person had to actually go out and play music. They took his word for it, albeit with a good deal of suspicion. They then recorded Country Was in two days in their dad’s workshop/garage, surrounded by sawdust-covered fishing rods and tackle boxes, stacks of 1980’s country LPs, a drill press, and various tools bought at the flea market. The now trio went to work booking their first tour, using landline telephones, the U.S. Postal Service, and the still somewhat novel medium of electronic mail to pester ‘music venue’ owners into either booking The Avett Brothers or telling The Avett Brothers to leave them the hell alone (the latter response took less pestering than the former). The result was a run of shows throughout the southeast and east coast regions – 14 shows over 21 days. Coming from the limited performing experience of basically playing Charlotte over and over again since they were teenagers, for the brothers, this tour might as well have been Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ complete with rhyming, celebrations, frustrations, earth-shattering realizations, challenges overcome, and sirens. Unlike the ‘Odyssey,’ there were (fortunately) no cycloptic villains, slaying of suitors, six-headed monsters, or verses written in dactylic hexameter. It may bear mentioning that later, like Odysseus, they would be very happy to reach Ithaca (New York, not the Greek island). Everything was changed after that first tour – it set wheels in motion that are still turning. Each new place made a lasting impression, and in doing so, ensured their imminent return and hopeful building of a relationship with that town. Time passed. Songs happened. An unlimited variety of settings found their way into the performing history of The Avett Brothers. They played in most of the fifty states, at parks and in parking lots, bluegrass festivals and middle schools, 5-in-the-morning local TV news shows, corporate events in big white tents, weddings and memorial services, Mexican restaurants, rock clubs, open mics, house concerts, a Super Bowl party at a bar-b-cue restaurant (…”we’ll still pay ya’ll but can you stop playing so we can hear the game?”….”uhhhh, sure”).
Around 2007, Crawford dragged Joe Kwon into the mix – a Korean-born cellist and guacamole expert who had recently volunteered to leave a lucrative position and bright future with a massively successful computer company for the bleak and uncertain future of a musician. As a talented cellist, he immediately got work bussing tables and serving food at multiple restaurants. In the limited time he had away from work, he booked his days and nights solid, performing with the band ‘Bus,’ honing his skills as a chef in his own tiny kitchen and yelling, full volume, at the TV during Carolina Tar-heel basketball games. As a youth, growing up in High Point, NC, he spent much of his time ignoring pop music to drive himself mad studying Bach, consequently leading to all kinds of odd and questionable behavior later in life, including purposefully quitting a perfectly good computer job, yelling at televisions, and eventually jumping out of a perfectly functioning airplane nearly 300 times. After Joe’s cameo on the album Emotionalism, The Avett Brothers felt it made sense to hire a cellist full time. Since they didn’t know any other cellists, the open try-out process was brief. Kwon joined, committing fully to playing music which was, technically and culturally, primitive in comparison to his lifelong training. He thereby took one step closer to a career in the performing arts, while adding yet another job to his schedule that barely paid. On the bright side, through Kwon’s skillful playing and classical background, the band at long last achieved a vague semblance of sophistication.
However, this newfound fanciness was to be short-lived, as any sophistication would soon be obliterated (though at times also somehow heightened) by the inevitable addition of pianist/bassist Paul Defiglia. A singular case of Winston-Salem-raising-meets-New-York-City-swagger-meets-Old-World-Italian-joy, Defiglia grew up listening to jazz, punk rock, bluegrass, classic rock, and anything else he could get his hands on. Starting on the bass at age 14, he got the fundamentals from his professionally bass-playing father, learned quickly, and eventually went on to study music theory at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then at NYU. He performed in various projects in New York City and beyond, eventually playing the only upright-bass solo in the 35-year history of the nationally-televised Late Show with David Letterman. He made the acquaintance of the brothers around 2005 while playing bass with Langhorne Slim (an unusually prepossessing songwriter from, well, Langhorne, Pennsylvania). With Slim for many years, he blazed a trail through the U.S. and Europe, regularly performing in a hot-pink tank top. A late bloomer on the piano, he crammed about 5 years worth of study in his first 2 months on the instrument, regularly practicing for 8 to 10 hours at a time, breaking through the formidable challenges on a diet consisting primarily of cheap cigarettes and much, much more coffee than any man should ever drink. Musically, he rose to the occasion without delay. It became clear to The Avett Brothers early on, that for this man, contributing to the songs would not be a challenge. However, it does remain to be seen if Paul will survive the endless frustrations provided by cellphone-entranced pedestrians, intoxicated neighbors in hotel rooms, selfie sticks, overpriced records, overcooked pasta, Chicago Cubs losses, and people crowding the gate at the airport whose zones have not been called yet.
In the mid-1970s, a child was born in Miami, Florida. 13 years later, that child started playing drums. 22 years after that, the boy turned man (Mike Marsh) walked into a studio by the ocean in California and for the first time in the history of the band, The Avett Brothers had rhythm. Initially confused and angered by the concept of tempo, the brothers eventually relented, begrudgingly agreeing that having a reliable beat in a song wasn’t altogether terrible, as long as they could continue to not tune their instruments. Bob, in his patience, spared them the obvious ‘I tried to tell you guys,’ and yet another record appeared, ushering in the post-Emotionalism chapter. However, long before I and Love and You, there was Rush’s Moving Pictures, Ghost in the Machine by The Police, and Led Zeppelin I -albums that captivated the adolescent Marsh and called to his volcanic energy. Appropriating a ‘drum kit’ his brother fished out of a local garbage heap (complete with ripped heads on each drum), little Mikey, without cymbals at his disposal, would use a rotary-style pencil sharpener in their stead, quickly reducing the little machine to pancake status. With the discovery of this newfound passion, there would be no looking back. Drumming would inform and direct his life from then on. Receiving no formal training, he would pick up different techniques by ear and by working in a drum shop, watching and absorbing a culturally and stylistically wide variety of drummers as they tried out new gear. He played in multiple punk and rock bands, eventually making a name for himself as the rhythmic force behind Dashboard Confessional. His career in drumming was briefly threatened by a ruinous-though-promising dedication to skateboarding, but by sheer practicality, hitting things with sticks eventually triumphed over hitting concrete surfaces with his body. The Avett Brothers hired Marsh full-time at the end of 2012, and while they are generally beyond delighted with his playing, they have occasionally considered hiring his 10-year-old daughter as his replacement.
By late 2013, it had become clear that the band – 6 dudes on stage and 6 or 7 dudes on the crew – were decidedly lacking in feminine sensibility. Though perhaps as in touch with their feminine side as a group of 12 or 13 dudes can be, as made evident by their collective intuition, inexplicable wisdom, sensitivity-themed songs, and appreciation for artists such as Prince, Bette Midler, Meryl Streep, and Brad Pitt…something was missing. Although the band made a fairly decent showing of some womanlike qualities, no member had actually achieved any real level of womanhood.
Enter Tania Elizabeth – a genuine, real-life woman. Born in Australia and raised in Canada, Tania first picked up the fiddle at age 3 but felt it didn’t make sense to start performing seriously until she grew up. So when she finally turned 9, she began to get serious about music, performing and collaborating extensively, starting her own label at 15, releasing her first recordings at 16, and touring internationally by 17. Her life experiences, including her education, friendships, and adventures, would largely be directed and driven by and through her love and commitment to music. Her playing would mirror, as it often does in great players, her personality – intuitive, harmonious, powerful, friendly, playful. Eventually, she joined with a whole group of exceptionally-skilled musicians/vocalists called The Duhks. At some point during her near decade-stint with the group, she crossed paths at a music festival in Indiana with a whole group of not-so exceptionally skilled musicians/vocalists from rural North Carolina. She was blown away by them, and so without even a moment’s hesitation, she joined The Avett Brothers…8 years later. In one fell swoop, Tania not only rounded out the lineup musically with her dynamic fiddling, but she also took the entire organization to a level of femininity which had been previously hoped for but fundamentally impossible.
Ultimately, The Avett Brothers joined together to present songs about experiences that they as humans have known to humans who know what they mean. Subject matters are tragic, joyful, and inexhaustible. They sing and play often, as long as they are not too busy walking around the mall, changing kid’s diapers, buying coffee, making coffee, washing dishes, going to the mountains, going to the beach, taking a run, moving into a different house or apartment, visiting St. Jude, producing a record, talking before thinking, nursing thought-induced headaches, getting married, getting divorced, falling in love, falling out of the top bunk, building cardboard spaceships, complaining about whatever there is to complain about, painting, planting a doomed garden, befriending a rabbit in the backyard, getting the truck inspected, watching Doc Watson on YouTube, paying a small fortune for an old book about how to play the banjo, counting blessings, forgetting blessings, going to the Fischl exhibition, going to the Estes exhibition, building a dining room table, making a podcast, teaching children how to fiddle, petitioning a governor, practicing an instrument that they’re already supposed to be good at, making a print, making a mess, taking kids to church, taking kids to school, taking kids to soccer practice, cleaning up after kids, laughing in the kitchen, sending flowers, pacing in the waiting room, thinking it over, talking it out, watching it go, or leaving it be.