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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
Scott was studying radio and art at East Carolina University (he’s owned a gallery in his hometown for a decade) when he bought a banjo. The brothers began performing songs by Old and in the Way and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at parties – “a lot of speed songs, just flying bluegrass songs,” says Scott. A friend introduced them to Bob Crawford, a Deadhead who had spent his twenties drifting through odd jobs. He’d just bought a stand-up bass and, after jamming with the Avetts on “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” in a parking lot, was invited to join the band. The Avett Brothers spent the next few years on the road, crashing everywhere from campgrounds to a drug dealer’s home, playing gigs at Dairy Queens, topless bars and trailer parks. They figured they’d peaked in 2004, when they each pulled in $6,000 for the entire year.
The Avetts haven’t completely grown out of their DIY ethos – they even still share hotel rooms. “It’s odd to a lot of people, but it’s economical,” says Scott. And despite a 15-person crew, Joe Kwon – the Korea-born cellist who joined the Avett Brothers in 2007 – is tasked with booking air travel and hotels. “It can be frustrating,” Kwon says, recalling a credit card that malfunctioned minutes before a gig. “It messes with your mind. I was like, ‘Ugh! I can’t deal with this right now. I have to get onstage.'”
On a Monday afternoon, the band relaxes backstage at The Tonight Show. Dexter actress Jennifer Carpenter arrives in a brown mesh top and black heels, sharing a long embrace with Seth before they disappear down a hallway. In June, the Avetts were propelled into the world of TMZ and Perez Hilton when Seth announced he was separating from his wife, Susan. Gossip sites claimed that he’d been dating Carpenter since 2011. Fans viciously lashed out at the band (“[He] left the family values of NC for the money and fame of L.A.,” wrote one commenter), perhaps due to the wholesomeness of some of their songs – their fan-favorite ballad “January Wedding” is an ode to Seth’s former marriage.
Says Scott, “I was like, ‘Boy, if our fans thought we were better than anybody else, this is the best thing that ever happened to me.'” He’s been married to a North Carolina former nurse for 10 years. “If temptation of another person or something was to show itself, you just have to remove yourself from that. It’s just pretend. It’s not real, and how could it possibly end well?”
It didn’t help when Radar Online reported that the band’s former drummer, Jacob Edwards, was fired after confronting Seth about the affair. “That was just crazy,” says Scott of the story. “He just didn’t work out in the band.”
“Sketchy publicity was not fun,” says Seth.
It’s easy to draw a connection between Seth’s divorce and last year’s The Carpenter, which includes bitter kiss-offs (“I Never Knew You”) and ballads about finding love in dark times (“February Seven”). Some fans didn’t think the title was an accident, either. “Great name 4 an album riiiight? :)”, Carpenter tweeted last year. (“It’s a total coincidence,” Seth swears.)
In the midst of all this drama, Crawford has been facing a nightmare. On August 29th, 2011, on the way back from a European tour, he received a call from his wife, Melanie, who was crying. Their 22-month-old daughter, Hallie, had suffered a seizure; a scan showed an abnormality on her brain. “It’s scarred into my memory,” says Kwon. “You could see the pain on his face.”
The band joined Crawford at the hospital – and barely left his side for two weeks, taking turns running out for food while Crawford and his wife waited for Hallie’s condition to improve. They also prayed for the first time together. “We were all crying,” remembers Crawford, his eyes welling up.
Hallie was diagnosed with an extremely rare, usually fatal brain tumor. During surgery, doctors removed most of the right side of her brain. Doctors predicted she’d never sit up, but Crawford points to several miracles since: She is able to take steps, speak three-word sentences, and isn’t blind like previously predicted. “She watches movies and she’s laughing at the jokes,” he says, pulling out his iPhone to show a new video of Hallie in a onesie, shuffling across a mattress as a physical therapist cheers her on. “She’s sharp as a tack.”
Crawford slept on a hospital couch for a year while the band toured with a replacement, then had a difficult return to the road. “I was like, ‘I just don’t feel like I’m part of this party,'” he says. “Even [with] something like, ‘What are we gonna wear tonight?’ and the people at St. Jude going through the worst time of their lives. I would not wear these jeans at St. Jude. That stuff makes you sick.”
Crawford was flooded with notes from fans, who have helped raise $60,000 for the hospital online. In a sense, they were paying back the band; the Avett Nation fan forum is full of stories about how the group helped fans through tragedies. The bandmates sent one fan a care package after a tornado destroyed her home; when another fan died in a car accident, they sent flowers to his funeral. “We sort of modeled our fan interaction after the NASCAR drivers,” says Seth. “Dale Earnhardt would talk to everybody, staying around signing things. We’ve done as much of that as we can.”
It’s past midnight when the band’s bus finally reaches the Holiday Inn. Scott steps outside into the fog, carrying a giant duffel bag and a laptop case. “A good day’s work feels really good,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than one that feels unproductive and lingering.”
As he walks through the parking lot, he starts thinking about the Avetts’ legacy. “We’re in the middle of it, but there may be one day where people look at all of this kind of like they do something like Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour: It was an exciting time, a good time for music. There’s a lot of music that will affect a lot of people.”
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.