“Babe, do you want to come up and tell him when you asked me to marry you?” Jim Avett yelled down to his wife, Susie, from his guitar-filled attic room he goes to for a release from the world and to play his music.
Susie yelled back up sarcastically, “What? We really didn’t know each other very well!” They both laughed.
I joined the conversation and shouted down to Susie, “you have been happy ever since?”
Jim said, “relatively.” Susie yelled back up, “honey, don’t tell him lies!” The two finally agreed that they decided to get married on a beach in Pensacola, FL, when Jim was stationed there in the Navy.
I spent the morning with Jim on his farm in Concord, North Carolina. There were three parts to the interview: on the front porch, in his attic, and on the farm. Throughout the interview, we talked about his life with Susie and his kids, his music (he even sang me a couple tunes), and he told me about a lot of lessons that he learned throughout his life.
Part I-The Porch and a Discussion on Family
Jim was born in 1947 in Gastonia, North Carolina to a Methodist preacher and moved to Mount Pleasant from 1947 to 1953. He lived in Lexington for a while, and went to high school in Caldwell County. He caused some trouble and attended three different colleges, before graduating from UNC-Greensboro after time in the Navy.
Jim and Susie Avett went on a blind date in 1968. She had been dating one of Jim’s friends and Jim was dating somebody else. Jim was in the Navy and Susie was going to college at UNC-Greensboro to become a reading teacher. Susie’s date had to cancel, so Jim called her up and said, “would you rather go out with me?”
After that first date, there were lots of letters and phone calls when they could afford them.They only dated half a dozen times before they got married in 1969. “Susie was an Army brat that was the daughter of a general and she lived all over the world,” said Jim. “She probably would have never guessed that she would marry the son of a preacher man.”
That was the beginning of the Avett family. Jim and Susie had three children, Bonnie, Scott, and Seth, and now they have seven grandchildren ranging from one to thirteen. Bonnie is a yoga and dance teacher, and Scott and Seth are joined by Bob Crawford as founders of one of the most popular bands in the country, The Avett Brothers.
“We joke around that in twenty years all of my grandchildren will make up The Avett Cousins and tour the country,” said Jim.
After the birth of Bonnie, Jim worked for the North Carolina Department of Social Services for two years before becoming burned out. He wanted to move to Alaska to weld and asked Susie if she was okay with going there. She replied, “wherever you go, I am going!”
“I drug Susie from here to hell and back, but she is still mine and my sons biggest fan,” said Jim.
The two took their daughter, a fifteen year old truck, a doberman, and $1,700 across the country for Jim to find a welding job in Alaska. “I didn’t find what I was looking for in Alaska, but on the way up I met a man in Wyoming that offered me a job so we moved back down there,” said Jim.
“I found what I wanted in Wyoming, wide open spaces. We probably would have stayed there in Wyoming, but I understand people down South and I feel at home down here and we knew we had to come home.”
Just after giving birth to Scott in 1976, the family moved back to Cabarrus County. A year later, Jim was talking to a man that had a bunch of land and a very small house that consisted of five rooms, no bathroom, and no insulation. He offered the house to Jim for sixty-five dollars, which covered fifty dollars for the survey and fifteen dollars for the lawyer. “If you have more of anything than you need then you need to give it away,” said Jim. Seth was born in 1980 to complete the family.
Over the years, Jim has added on to the quaint house, and fixed up the barn and workshop behind the house. They now have sixty acres of farmland, with a lot of chickens and about eighteen rather large cows and Scott bought forty more connected acres to the land. “Scott is tied to the ground, while Bonnie and Seth have become more urbanized. He likes to get down in the dirt and dig up bugs and so do his kids,” said Jim of the kids.
Jim spent thirty-five years running his own welding company and working on bridges all along the East Coast. “We were the best at what we did,” Jim said of his company’s ability to build bridges. About seven years ago, Jim retired from welding and literally gave away his entire business to a couple guys that worked for him for years so he could pursue his passion, music.
Part II-The Attic and The Avett Family Music
After sitting on the porch, we headed up steep stairs to Jim’s safe haven attic, where he played me some tunes on guitars like his Martin D-35 Seth Avett guitar and his 1923 L-2 Gibson. He likes “big bodied, deep sounding guitars.” Jim played me a Merle Haggard song, In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad, a Jimmie Rodgers tune, and The Everly Brothers hit, Dream Dream Dream. He says he learned his first three chords from that song, and later taught those chords to Seth when he learned his first song, Grandfather’s Clock.
In 2008, Jim turned his attention to his second love, after his family, music. At that point, the boys were a very successful threesome, but hadn’t reached the stardom that their fifteen years of touring the world have now brought them. They will release their next highly anticipated album, True Sadness, this June 24th.
Jim said, “Scott once said that dad gave up a career in music so we could have one. That isn’t quite true.”
The entire Avett clan learned harmonies from singing in the church. Jim and Susie had all of the kids learning piano by the age of six. Afterwards, Scott turned to the banjo and Seth to the guitar, but they both still play the piano during concerts. In fact, Jim and Bonnie get up on stage with the brothers a couple times a year to sing classic Avett tunes like “Salvation Song” or “Swept Away,” or tunes like “Happy Trails” by Roy Rogers.
Jim has now released three records since 2008: Jim Avett and Family (2008, a gospel album joined by Bonnie, Scott, Seth, Bob, and Joseph Kwon), Tribes (2010), and Second Chance (2012) (jimavett.com). He travels the country each year to perform forty to fifty shows. He likes to head up to the Pittsburgh area and travel west to Portland and then through California and Texas to back home singing and seeing old friends. He won’t play bars anymore. “If there is a big screen television or pool tables, they don’t need me.”
He is playing MerleFest in Wilkesboro on May 1st and will perform twice (one gospel tunes and the other Jim’s original music) with Bonnie, Hannah Flowers, and Patrick Crouch. Jim and Susie travel to see The Avett Brothers seven to eight times a year. They enjoy going to Red Rocks in Colorado every year, because they can also stop in Wyoming. Jim will be playing a sold-out show this July 27th, before the boys play three shows at Red Rocks on the 28th-30th.
I asked Jim where his sons get their energy from and he told me, “the Avett work ethic. If it is worth getting after it, go after it whole hog.” He told me that he knew they made it big-time when he walked out on stage fifteen minutes before their first show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which they have sold out ever since. The next night after that show, the band played at Austin City Limits and that just confirmed it for him.
Susie and Jim still see Bonnie and their boys frequently, along with their spouses and kids. After our interview, they were going to go have coffee with Scott and Seth before the two left for the next leg of their tour where they will play from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Part III-On the Farm and Life Lessons
We spent the last half hour walking around the farm. Jim fed the chickens and the cows, and Susie hung out the wet laundry on the clothesline in the backyard. Jim and Susie gave me a toy that Jim made for my kids, some fig jam from their fig trees, and all three of Jim’s albums before I left.
Through my two hours on the Avett farm, Jim veered off into several life lessons, and to conclude this blog I would like to share some with you:
“I hear people say you are living the dream, and they are probably right!”
“My neighbors mind their business and I mind mine. If they need help, I will help them.”
“Things don’t change through generations. People want to be respected, safe, and feel needed. These things don’t change, I don’t care what year it is.”
“Being satisfied with where you are is the trick. It isn’t worth wasting your time trying to look like somebody, be yourself.”
“You gotta do what you do and be unique. Every person is unique, like finger prints. All of us are unique by our DNA and upbringing.”
“Making it is a relative term. Success in your field is like a ladder. If there are 100 rungs and you make it to the third rung, you aren’t a failure if that is the best you can do.”
“We never encouraged anything for our kids but to be the best they can be. The one thing about our children is that they are doing what they love to do. This is the one life you have. The sooner you realize that the better you can be. Everybody in my family did a good job of developing their talents.”
“An honest living is not taking more than you need or walking on somebody that you shouldn’t.”
“If you are going to be better than any other garage band, you have to be unique. Lots of people might sound great, but they aren’t unique.”
“If you are entertaining people will come and if not, just play on your porch.”
“Everything in life is a matter of survival.”
“One of the reasons I learned to pick a guitar was for self-defense. There wasn’t a lot around or a lot of money to go around, so you learned music or quilting or reading. I remember a world without television. The younger generation is used to having everything.”