UCR Interview- Jim Avett (Father of the Avett Brothers)

By: Kevin Rolfe

Photo By: Joel Plotkin

Jim Avett is performing at the Velour Music Gallery in Provo, Utah on Wednesday, September 19.  Jim’s last name might ring a bell. He’s the father of Seth and Scott Avett, better known as The Avett Brothers.  I had reached out to Jim’s management to request an interview and I received an email and phone call from Jim himself the following morning.  That isn’t common with artists, but as I soon learned, Jim operates on a very personal level.  We played a bit of phone tag, and I we finally connected on Mr. Avett’s return call. I answered with “Hello, this is Kevin.”.  He responded, “Well get over yourself”. His southern wit and North Carolina accent were thick and I immediately knew this was going to be a really enjoyable conversation.  And it sure was. Jim told me that he’s been told he’s the easiest person to interview ever because he does all the talking. And he’s right. But I had no desire to interrupt anything he was saying.  He answered my questions eventually, but in the process shared wonderful stories of life, music, and love. You’ll see that this interview starts with him talking. I pretty much thanked him for taking the time, and he was off and running.  I loved every minute of it! Hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jim Avett!

Jim Avett:  So this is our first time playing Utah and we’re really looking forward to that.  We used to live in Wyoming and there are people from the east who come to Wyoming and they say “God that’s the most desolate place I’ve ever seen.”.  Well, there are probably people that say that about Canyonville. But there’s something pretty about everywhere.  Sometimes you’ve got to look for it. We’re in Cheyenne right now and I’m looking out across the prairie.  The winter time it can get pretty bitter. But in the springtime, if you’ll take time to get down to look you can see every color in the world because there’s a bunch of little bitty teeny tiny wildflowers. But you’ve got to take the time to look.  Sometimes you’ve got to look for the beauty in things. I don’t care if it’s relationships, or places, or colors or whatever. I think harmony has a lot to do with how happy a person is. Not only harmony in music, but harmony in relationships, and shapes and putting your life together.  But anyway, what the hell do I know? Alright, what are your questions?

Utah Concert Review:  So, I’m curious…

JA: So how old am I?  I’m 71 years old. Go ahead.  

UCR:  Well you don’t sound a day over seventy.  

JA: (Laughing) Yea, I’d say.  I had eye surgery. I had this skin over my eyes cut off.  I asked the doctor Will it make me look younger?”. She said “Oh yeah.  You’ll look at least 69 or so.

UCR:  So, I’m curious, you’ve been playing music pretty much all your life.  But you had a career outside of music until you retired. How long ago did you actually start touring?

JA:  I’ll address the first part more in depth at the concert.  But I got my first guitar when I was 13. I’ve tried to learn how to play the guitar since that time and have had limited success ever since. I’ve always had music in the house.  Always. My mother was a concert pianist and my daddy was a Methodist preacher. I took three years of piano and four years of violin before I ever picked up a guitar.  With my children, The Avett Brothers, and The Avett Daughter, their talent in music came from my mother.  She was the kind of lady that, well I’d be practicing violin and I’d hit a sour note and she’d be three rooms away from me fixing supper and she’d say “That’s a B flat you’re looking for.”. And I’d think “God how can you do that? How can a person be that talented to hear that true a tone?  But she was, and it came through me. We always encouraged music to our children. We encouraged our children to be the best they could be at whatever they would be. I never pushed music though. I think music is important though. People will say “Well why do you think music is important?” And I’ll tell you why. It teaches a person that things fit together.  I don’t care if you’re playing on the level of “Chopsticks” or if you’re playing at the Juilliard School of Music. It’s like Math. You can go 2 + 2 or you can go to calculus. It fits together on every level. And the more you go into it, the more it opens up. And it teaches a person that things in life fit together. And I think it’s important for kids to know this.  They don’t have to be good at music. They don’t have to get on stage. They never have to do that. But it is important that they have a passing knowledge of it. Because this is the way that you realize you can be creative. Now when did I start touring?  

I have always played off and on.  Not necessarily in bands. I have been kicked out of about every band I was ever in.  That’s as it should be. I expect a lot out of other people. I expect a lot out of me.  If I tell you I’m going to be there at seven o’clock, I’ll be there at a quarter till. But I won’t be there at five after.  If you ‘aint there, I don’t know if you’re drunk, dead, in prison or what. But I know you’re not there and my time is important to me.  So for that reason, I don’t do real well with other band members. If you’ve got a five-piece band, you’ve got five egos, you’ve got five directions you want to go in.  And it’s hard to put together a band that will stay together. The reason the Avett boys are still together, they actually love one another. Members of that band know one another, they know their wives and their kids, and they know what each one of them is going through and they support one another.  And that’s something you don’t usually find in bands.

I retired the day I was 62.  We did a couple of things. One we gave our land to the kids.  That day. With the agreement that we could live there as long as we wanted to and I could raise hay and cows, they could have it.  I gave a business I had run for forty years away. Lock stock and barrel gave it to them. Gave it to two guys who had worked for me for about twenty years.  In small business, you don’t have many perks. But these two boys did what we did better than anybody, and they didn’t do anything else very well. So I gave them the machinery, the shop equipment, six months of work and walked away from it.  I didn’t’ need the money. I don’t have any money. I’m living proof that you don’t need a million dollars to retire. I’ve got great faith in the future. If I have to have some money I’ll pick a guitar a little bit and we’ll eat supper. For me, you’re a success if you eat supper and have enough firewood to stay warm. I don’t give a damn about what kind of car you drive or what kind of shoes you wear.  Why would I care about that? I care about having enough fire in the winter time to keep you warm because that will kill you. And if you haven’t got something to eat, that’ll kill you too. But food and firewood are what every war has been fought over.

I went to college to get an education, not to get a job.  I have a masters in Psychology. With an education, I can get a job.  I can go get a job, I don’t care what the economy is like. I know what they’re looking for.  They’re looking for somebody who will show up every day sober and try hard. And show up on time. That’s not asking a lot.  But my generation hasn’t taught this to the younger generation, and that is a fault of ours. But what the hell do I know?  What else?

Oh, I’ve been touring actively for about ten years.   My manager says “How many shows do you want to do?” I told him about four or five a month.  He said, “You know that’s about fifty shows a year? I thought ‘Oh, God. That sounds like a lot!”.  But I do forty to fifty shows a year.

UCR:  With music always being in your home, did you always know that you wanted to perform?  Or was there a specific event or influence you heard that let you know you wanted to do this.

JA:  I don’t know that I ever said ‘I want to do this’.  I don’t know that it was ever my dream to get on stage.  I have a lot of interests and talents in a lot of areas. At one time it was on my bucket list to play in Nashville, just to say I’ve played Nashville.  But that’s been scratched off. The older you get you begin to see that the bucket list is getting empty. It’s not that you’ve gotten them done, sometimes you just scratch them off.  

The perspectives I have I will tell the young people at the concert.  They need to hear this. At this point in my life, it’s time to give it away.  If you want to know how I pick, I’ll be glad to show you. If you want one of my lyric sheets, I’ll be glad to send it to you.  I’ll tell them that some of the songs I’m doing can only be heard live. They’re not for public consumption. I’ll probably only do one more album even though I have about thirty or forty more songs I’ve written. But it’s time for me to get out of the way and let some young people have that time. It’s stacked up against the young singer-songwriters these days.  Amazon and iTunes take the bulk of the money. It used to be that a young singer-songwriter could sell enough CD’s to get gas and food and get to the next gig. It’s not that way anymore. Now the only way you can make money at music is live performance.  And a young singer-songwriter can be the best in the world, but they can’t draw five people because no one has ever heard of them. And for that reason, many of them are dropping out. And it’s a shame. That’s an absolute shame. Because there are some pretty talented kids out there.  I was one of the gospel music judges at Merle Fest and I can tell you that there are some talented singer-songwriters out there.

UCR:  I think it’s great that you’ve been able to have a career outside of music, and then become a touring performer.  I think it gives you a great perspective on things, and now you can share it with an audience and help them in their lives.

JA:  When this gets to be work, I’ll quit.  There will come a time where I’m not able to do this.  And it’s closer now than it’s ever been. However, it ‘aint here today, and it gonna be here tomorrow. I intend to do that show in Provo.  But I think there are still a couple things that need to be said. If I’ve got the opportunity to say it, I will.

But as far as some of my influences.  Scott (Jim’s son, and one half of The Avett Brothers) said in an interview, “Dad gave up a career in music so we could have one.”    That’s not really true. If I had a career in music, I would have got to Nashville about the time some really talented guys would have got there. And I’m not sure how I would have stood up against them.  Because I’m not sure that I was that committed to it. People like Tom T. Hall, that I have talked to, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Chuck Berry, these guys influenced me along with many others.  The show tomorrow night will have some of my stuff, and some of other people’s. If I would only do my stuff, which I could do, it would assume that I write the best stuff. And that’s not really true. I write some pretty good stuff, occasionally.  But there are so many really good songs, that if I don’t play them, you’ll never hear them. And it would be a real tragedy for you not to hear a couple of tunes I plan on playing in Provo. I want people either really liking me or really hating me.  Either way is fine.

UCR:  Velour, the venue you’re playing is one of my favorites in all of Utah. Tons of character and charm, and it sounds great in there. And because it’s in sort of a college town, I think you’ll have a number of young artists and fans there to see you.  It sounds like you’ll be giving them a great education on songwriting and more.

JA: I’m really going to make an effort at it.  And I’m going to tell you, just sitting here thinking, as we’re getting ready to head over to visit with the boys (The Avett Brothers), I’m going to put this in the Provo show.  I’m going to tell them what it’s like to be 71.

Jim proceeds to tell me what he’s going to tell everyone at Velour on Wednesday.  It’s a great story, and will give us all a lot of perspective. But I don’t want to spoil it.  So head on over to the show and you’ll be glad to hear it. If you miss the show, or don’t live local, just let me know and I’ll tell you the story after his performance.  

UCR:  Last question for you Jim.  I don’t want to take any time you could be having with your sons.  

JA:  Oh I have all afternoon to see them.  We don’t chase them around. I see maybe 8 or 10 shows a year.  If I want to see them, I’ll see them at the house. They have a job to do, and they’re busy on the road, so I don’t want to interfere with that.  

UCR:  Is the show at Velour a solo show with just you on stage?  Or do you get to play with a band?

JA:  I always do a solo show.  Unless the stage is a big stage.  I do listening rooms, and I do house concerts.  I do not play bars. If it’s got a big screen TV or a pool table, you can get a jukebox. I will not play where people are talking.  If they didn’t come to hear the music, they don’t need me. But I have a guy that plays anything you want. He plays great lead guitar and great bass.  He’ll join me. I have a girl who comes from Pittsburg plays fiddle. She’s killer, man she’s good. I got my daughter, she sings harmony on bigger stages.  However, Provo is a solo stage. This whole tour, I’m doing 10 or 12 shows within 16 days.

UCR:  Thank you so much, Jim.  I think people are in store for a great show.  Playing Velour, and with the type of show you’re describing seems to be an ideal match.  

JA:  There are some times where I walk on stage and get in the chair and I’ll think, “My shows have been really good.  I’ve had some really good shows lately”. But you have one every once in a while that is a bad show. It makes up the averages.  (Laughing) I sure as hell hope that the show in Provo isn’t making up the average! But we’re hoping that the show in Provo will be a good show.  

I could have listened to him all day.  He sang me part of a Hank Williams song and told me a couple great jokes.  He seems to love what he’s doing, and I think he has high hopes for the show at Velour.   I highly recommend being in attendance.  

You can get most of Jim Avett’s music wherever music is sold.  You can get all of his music on his website.  www.jimavett.com

You can purchase tickets here, or at the door! I really hope to see you there!

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