by Barbara Hengstenberg | Photography by Caitlin Penna
Jim Avett is the epitome of a man embracing his second act. A generous, grateful, fair, strong-willed, dry-witted man, Avett moved from a life of welding and bridge-building to that of a recording singer/songwriter whose true passion resonates in his live performances. At the heart of all he’s accomplished is the father, husband, grandfather, farmer and protector of all he holds dear.
I met with Jim and Susie, his wife of almost 50 years, at their homestead in Concord, North Carolina. As I pulled into their driveway on a sultry August morning, the crunch of gravel competed with cicada shrills, a crowing rooster and the woofs of two friendly dogs who greeted me as soon as my car door opened. I found Jim lolling on the porch in his rocker as Susie burst through the front door with a kind embrace, telling me the coffee’s on. There is something about this family that welcomes the outsider with ease. I immediately felt at home.
The Avetts are farmers, raising cows and chickens on a 60-acre farm, most of which has been given by Jim and Susie to their children. As we strolled over to the century-old weathered gray hay barn, Jim and Susie explained that early on, they owned 22 acres down the road when a neighbor gave them a small house, which Jim rebuilt into their current home. This is a house of avid readers, with more than 3,000 books nestled throughout. This is where the music of widely-popular Americana/rock band, The Avett Brothers, was born and developed. This is where, venturing into the second-floor music room, approximately 65 guitars hold court among piles of lyric sheets and notebooks spilling over with songs. Music penetrates the soul as soon as one steps foot into the house. Sons Scott and Seth live nearby with their families. When not touring as the The Avett Brothers, they are at home, creating more music and helping their dad on the farm. Daughter Bonnie also tours with the band and lives with her family in South Carolina.
Raised by a country Methodist preacher, Jim joined the Navy after high school. “I knew there were eight years taken out of my life: four in the service and four for college.” Jim went to welding school at night while working on his psychology degree at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where Susie also earned a degree, hers in clothing and textiles. Upon graduation, Jim worked for the Department of Social Services for almost two years before he and Susie left for Alaska in order to work the pipeline. “We’d sold everything we had to make that trip. When we left North Carolina, I had $1,700 in my pocket … a 15-year-old truck, a Doberman dog, a 10-month-old baby [Bonnie] and a wife.” He tells of lost opportunities in Alaska. “A lot of dreams were made, and a lot of dreams were not.” All along, he lived by the maxim: “Just stand up and slap it. It may hit you back. It may knock you down. It may knock your teeth out. But at least you got your best lick in first. I wasn’t scared. I was just too dumb to be scared. We were looking for adventure.”
Eventually, the Avetts left Alaska for Wyoming, where Jim worked as welder. “It’s really not fair for me to work for somebody else … I learned in the Navy I don’t take orders all that well. If I’m going to fail, then I’m going to fail on my own.” The family grew with the birth of Scott in 1976. Soon after, Jim and Susie rented a house just down the road from their current home in Concord. Son Seth came along in 1980. In Concord, too, Jim started his own bridge-building business. “We took the good ones, the bad ones, the hard ones, the cheap ones, the expensive ones. We took them all. I could survive because we absolutely guaranteed what we did. We absolutely did it on time. We absolutely lived and died on our reputation.” After 45 years, Jim turned the business over to a dedicated employee. “Why not? It was the right thing to do. That old man that gave us the house … he was right. If you have more of anything than you need, you need to give it to somebody who doesn’t have enough.”
Music has always been ubiquitous in the Avett household. Jim began picking guitar at 13 and says he has never had a lesson. “I wanted to be as good a guitar player as I could be, and I think I’ve pretty well reached that. I’m not a great guitar player, but I know a lot of songs. It never was my goal to get on the stage.” While they were in Wyoming, Jim joined a small group of guitar pickers. To this day he plays with local pickers every Tuesday and Thursday night at a nearby service station.
Through the years, Jim’s music took shape. “When the boys were on the rise, in this room here … we’ve always had a stand-up model [piano]. The boys and the girl walked through and played it a little.” In 2010, Scott and Seth suggested that the family do a gospel album together. “I like old-time Southern gospel. Somebody asked [singer/songwriter] Arthur Smith what made [it] Southern gospel, and he said, two things: one, it has the highest highs and the lowest lows. The other is that it’s theologically correct.” The family recorded their first gospel album, Jim Avett and Family, in the very room in which we were talking.
Jim currently tours the country performing between 40 to 50 shows a year, believing that “the only way a musician now can make a living is live performance.” According to Jim, “Digital signals have made it extremely easy to work in the studio. A person who can’t sing a lick can be a hero in the studio. The problem comes in live performance. If you can’t sing on key, then you’ve got a problem … [digital signals] have taken control of the product out of the creator’s hands.” Six years ago, Jim convinced Susie to retire from her job as a reading teacher and join him on the road. “I take care of the merchandise, help him unload the van and stuff like that,” added Susie. Each fall, the couple makes “a lap around the country,” starting in Pennsylvania, over to Michigan, North Dakota and Oregon, and then down through California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Arkansas before making their way back to North Carolina.
“I’ll play 14 to 15 towns in 30 days … I wouldn’t have it any other way … We’re living proof that you don’t have to have a million dollars to retire,” reflects Jim. “As far as scared for the future, what the hell am I scared of? I can pick a guitar and get enough money for us to eat. I can cut firewood or I’ve got two sons who can cut me firewood. So we’ll get along.”
Occasionally, Jim performs with his sons. He is aware that many of his fans discovered him through his famous children. “A lot of Avett Brothers fans are enthralled with the idea of family. Everybody wants to identify with their ideals, with something bigger than they are. It’s the idea of being part of the music. Certain musical progressions do things for people that bring out the absolute best of them.”
“My job, in whatever gig I’m doing, is to entertain those people. I’ll put some of my stuff in. I’ll do some Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams or Glen Campbell. Scott said during one of his interviews, ‘Dad gave up a career in music so we could have one.’ That’s not really true … I’d never had the dream that I was a failure if I wasn’t on the stage.” Jim and Susie have always wanted their children to be the best at whatever they wanted to be. “I see people affected by the boys’ music, and that’s what it’s all about. The whole reason of being a singer/songwriter is to affect people’s lives.
I asked Jim’s children how they feel about their father’s music career. According to daughter Bonnie, “Dad often tells folks that the main reason he’s enjoying this ‘second act’ is because his last name is Avett. It’s that self-deprecating humor that we all know and love! While the boys’ success has certainly helped clear a path for him to travel, play, sing and tell stories, Dad’s talent stands on its own and his endearing manner warms so many hearts, including mine!”
Seth adds, “Dad stepped far, far away from a dream of music performance when he faced the practical and economic realities of raising a family … some 45 years ago. I’m forever grateful that he went all in on welding, as it proved a driving force in providing me and Bonnie and Scott with a childhood devoid of real financial hardship; now I’m glad he’s returned to music in this chapter of his life, as he is able to bring to the stage a gravity only present in people who have worked hard their whole lives. Plus, he seems to be having quite a lot of fun with it.”
Son Scott responded, “It’s a joy to see my dad on stage, telling his stories and singing his songs. I know how risky it is. As a young songwriter I failed to recognize this but can see it now. To witness my father taking that risk at this stage in life is inspiring and exciting. Go Dad!”
At home, a typical day sees Jim waking at 4:30 in the morning, and grabbing breakfast and conversation with a group that meets daily at a local diner. Following breakfast, his focus is on the business of music, then lunch with Susie and a nap, after which Jim is often found working the farm.
“Somebody once told me, ‘You’re living the dream.’ I guess I am. I didn’t dream this up. It wasn’t what I wanted to get to, but it’s a pretty good place … I’m proud of where I’m at.”