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The Avett Brothers' Long Road

The hard-won triumph of America's biggest roots band

The Avett Brothers
Bryce Duffy
December 24, 2013 11:00 AM ET

Scott Avett sits on a leather couch in the front of a tour bus pulling out of the parking lot of L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium. His band, the Avett Brothers, just finished a rowdy show before a crowd that included Rick Rubin and Judd Apatow, who stopped by the aftershow meet-and-greet and told the band he's cried while listening to its music. Now dressed in an Adidas tracksuit and brown feathered cowboy hat, Avett is making his way through a fat stack of posters he's supposed to autograph for contest winners. He pauses to float an idea for a new stage backdrop. "A bright-yellow lasso with 'the Avett Brothers' will be sick," he tells his manager in a hoarse Carolina drawl. "We gotta get that."

Inside the Avett Brothers' New Album

The handsome 37-year-old has been trying to break into acting. He recently auditioned (unsuccessfully) for two movie roles – one as the lead in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and another in an upcoming film about a jaded rock star, though Scott admits he didn't read the full script until the day of his table read with Anne Hathaway. "It's an emotional scene, and Anne starts welling up in tears," he says, as the bus rolls down the 101 freeway toward a Holiday Inn. "I was like, 'Oh, my God. How is she doing that?' It was obvious to me I was way out of my league."

There are roots acts that trade on their outsize (or outlaw) personalities – think Johnny Cash or, more recently, Deer Tick – but the Avett Brothers are not one of those bands. Led by Scott and his somber, thickly bearded brother, Seth, 33, the Avetts have the industriousness of a Nashville band, keeping expenses low, studio output high and their nose to the grindstone.

The Avetts spent a decade playing revved-up, bluegrass-steeped pop before breaking through with 2009's Rick Rubin-produced I and Love and You, which showed off their heartfelt, plain-spoken hooks and harmonies straight from the North Carolina mountains they grew up around. "The Avetts have a completely unique and original form of roots music," says Rubin, who has produced each of their last three albums. "The first thing that struck me was the sincerity in their vocals. I really believed them."

Scott Avett on Confronting Tragedy for The Carpenter

Since the beginning of last year, the Avetts have released two albums, most recently Magpie and the Dandelion, which debuted at Number Five on the pop charts in October. They've also toured nonstop, playing intense gigs that veer into gospel singalongs and old-timey ballads where the entire band gathers around a single microphone. The crowds, heavy on adoring female fans, keep getting bigger – the Avetts recently sold out two nights at Red Rocks.

The band even got to back Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammys. After the performance, Seth managed to get close to Dylan at the Beverly Hills Hotel afterparty, approaching the singer as he sat in a corner with a woman. "He said, 'We should do that again sometime,'" Seth recalls. "As if I could just give him a call."

Scott takes a break from signing to stare at one of the posters, self- designed pop-art prints depicting a magpie over a bright-pink background. "Avett Brothers? Really?" he deadpans. "What are they, a Mumford & Sons wanna-be band?"

Avett Brothers Get Aggresive on Rick Rubin-Produced Album

The rest of the bus roars with laughter. He's referring to a recent Canadian review that called the Avetts "Mumford-esque." If there is one footnote to the Avetts' success, it's this comparison, which keeps coming back: At an airport in Ireland this year, a girl called them "Mumford wanna-be's" to their faces. "I was like, 'We don't even look like them!'" says Scott. In fact, Mumford probably wouldn't exist without the Avetts. While recording its 2009 debut, Sigh No More, the English band listened to the Avetts' 2006 independent LP Four Thieves Gone "three, four times a day," Mumford banjo player Winston Marshall said. "I still can't get over it."

Scott and Seth Avett had the rural Southern upbringing the Mumfords can only dream about. The brothers still live less than a mile apart on the 60-acre Concord, North Carolina, farm where they grew up. The Avett family is prosperous and respected in the area: Their grandfather was the local Methodist preacher, and their dad, Jim, ran a successful welding business for 35 years.

Jim Avett is a tough, eccentric guy with the commanding voice of a radio evangelist. His house is packed with about 70 vintage guitars and hundreds of books on American history; during our hourlong conversation, he quotes everyone from Davy Crockett to Napoleon, at one point warning of impending class war. "There will be a revolution," he says. "And I hope you're ready. I have done everything I can to prepare, because it's coming."

Scott calls his dad a "cowboy type." When Scott was 12, Jim heard that a former employee was planning to rob the family business. "He got a revolver and told me to get into the pickup truck," Scott says. "I said, 'What are we doing?' We got there and he said, 'If anything happens, here's the gun.'"

The brothers were athletic (Scott even entertained the idea of a college soccer career), but mostly they just competed with each other. They still butt heads about everything from wardrobe (Seth will show up to a gig in a suit, Scott in a T-shirt) to set lists. "I like to keep it flexible," says Scott of the Avetts' gigs. "We get into pretty tight face-offs about that. It's usually a leadership thing, like, 'Who's in charge here?'"

Rubin says that the tension between Seth and Scott is the driving force of the band. "Scott tends to write and sing the darker songs, while Seth sings the part of the optimist," says Rubin. "They feel life in a deep way."

As teenagers, the brothers played in hard-rock bands after discovering Nirvana and Soundgarden; at one point, Scott had the bad fortune to rap in a nu-metal band. Things changed for Seth when his dad brought him to the nearby home of acquaintance Doc Watson, the blind fingerpicking master. "His playing was one of the most powerful things that I had ever seen," says Seth. "Suddenly the acoustic guitar became a reasonable option for everything."

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