“There is no question – God created me as an artist – do I know? No just suspect. But my suspicion is strong.” – Scott Avett
Before I made my way to my seat to watch The Avett Brothers perform, I was given clearance to go backstage and have an impromptu photo session with Scott and Seth. Whenever possible, I like to base my portrait painting on pictures that I take. We were led into a windowless room when Scott had the idea that we should go outside. The lighting would be so much better. I appreciated his understanding of the artistic process. My friend, Danette, was along for moral support and began telling the brothers what a fabulous painter I am. They were instantly curious about what medium I used. They acted as if it were understood that I’m no amateur. I liked the level of respect they gave me without ever seeing a stroke I had painted. Clearly, Scott and Seth had been raised right. They reminded me of my own boys, unfailingly cordial to their elders. The thought occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind being their mom. Then it hit me, “Is there such a thing as a ‘mom crush?’”
Even though the brothers are a duo, I am doing two separate profiles on them. I’m going to start by focusing on Scott first. He lives in rural North Carolina, adjacent to the farm were he was raised. He and his siblings all have land connected to their parent’s. To Scott the land is sacred. There is a kind of comfort born in knowing that your children roam the same woods that you did as a child. When he is not on the road, he has time to devote himself to what could be called the canvas of his home.
“I was just talking to my wife about that yesterday. Since we aren’t touring, I’ve shifted my focus into getting involved with the farm that we live on. I was seeing it just like I would see making an album. I was expressing myself with a piece of land, just like I express myself through music or art. It’s just another creative medium, another approach, another thing to work with.”
Besides Scott’s family dwelling, there is a small ranch style home on his property. His art studio is housed in it. Painting is another medium he makes use of when he isn’t traveling. He is an accomplished visual artist. Now in his forties, Scott is mindful of giving time to each of his creative gifts. On the day we spoke, he had scheduled the hours between 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. to paint. Without discipline he admits he could easily be distracted with sound checks, phone calls and the like. Scott is training himself to concentrate on the job at hand. “It’s all about the efficiency of time,” he says. “It’s what I’ve got to do to make the space to let the magic happen.”
And his paintings are magic. Scott’s art comes from the depths of his soul. He creates from what he honestly experiences. “That is how God works through us. We have to trust that.”
His oversized portraits of the people he loves most (himself included) stop onlookers in their tracks. Scott’s most often painted subjects are his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Although documented in banal settings his brood looks anything but ordinary. I marvel at Scott’s ability to encapsulate energy with his brush strokes. And in the age of body obsession and plastic surgery I marvel at the vulnerability of Sarah to allow herself to be captured as she is. Not many women would permit their image to be on display without make-up, breasts exposed. The honesty of it is somehow comforting. If the real Sarah is enough we all are enough.
In the loft of the ranch, is a recording studio. Plenty of magic materializes up there too. Recently the band released their eleventh album, The Third Gleam. The songs were written before the pandemic and unrest of 2020 but you’d never know it. The lyrics give voice to the collective struggle of humanity making sense of a world unhinged. The album does not leave the listener without hope. The chorus of track 4, “Back into the Light,” is a worthy mantra for anyone who feels overwhelmed. Listening to Scott and Seth sing it is a sure fire way to keep despair in check:
“Sometimes I don’t see love in anything
And just when I surrender to my shadow
I snap out of it, and step into the light
I step back into the light.”
Having crossed the threshold into the second half of his life, Scott has become an increasingly thoughtful man. He is deeply spiritual but not in the conventional way. Lately he has been immersing himself in the teachings of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. When I ask which religion he subscribes to he responds, “I think I would say what Woody Guthrie said when he was asked that question, ‘All of them.’”
Scott’s take on listening to the heart is that it’s the same as listening to God. He admits that he hasn’t always honored that connection with much discipline. “Getting involved in the general idea of following the inner voice, that’s a very recent endeavor for me. But I think that I have been nonstop dabbling in it forever. You know, for as long as I’ve lived.“
Having parents like Jim and Susie were the cornerstone for what would eventually become heart-centered living for Scott. He was always supported in being himself. There were never any expectations for what career path he should take. Hard work was honored in their household. Scott and his siblings were encouraged to follow their instincts while their parents simultaneously followed their’s. The family attended church on Sundays. In order for their children to believe in themselves they needed to believe in something greater than them.
Scott is grateful for the stable foundation he was given. “We’re all so privileged that our folks loved us and said you are a sweet child of this planet. A child of God. You are. You are. And go be that.”
With that kind of support, Scott never had a need for a master plan. He was comfortable coming from his center and going through the doors that felt right to him. To many, not having your future mapped out, sounds counter productive. Not so for Scott Avett. He toured with his brother for the first time when he was twenty-six. He was in the midst of shutting down a gallery that he’d opened. He walked through the door of expressing himself musically without giving thought to how much time it would take from his career as a visual artist. If he had considered that he may have done things differently.
“So I guess in that regard, not having a master plan and focusing on what was before me worked for me. I always needed to be free to know that I was following an instinct and creating for some purpose that I saw as sincere, that I saw as true to my inner voice.”
In the 2018 documentary, May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, viewers are given an inside look at the band from their origins to a collaboration with legendary record producer, Rick Rubin. At the closing of it, their father gives evidence as to why his sons are so grounded.
“They have a job; this job happens to be making music, and they happen to be fairly popular with it.That ain’t the end of the world. It’s nice to be successful at your job. I mean if you were an accountant, or you were a plumber, or you were whatever, it’s nice to be successful at it, but you can’t let that go to your head.”
When the end of my 30 minute interview was approaching, Scott’s publicist broke in to say it was time to wrap things up. Being reeled in always makes me nervous and I told him so. I had so many more questions I would have loved to ask him. Instead of ending the conversation Scott extended it. He said, “Don’t feel rushed. Let’s do another. Let’s do one more before you have to go.” I was touched. It confirmed to me that what I was told is true. Scott Avett is a kind man.
I told him, “Originally my final question was going to be, ‘Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?’ But talking to you made me wonder if our true calling is just being ourselves. Everything else stems from that. Does that make sense to you? Can you give me some feedback on that?”
“Yeah it does. It does. I do think you are dead on, Sue. I think egardless of what my calling is I’ve got to be true to myself. I’ve got to be myself, and one step further, I’ve got to go out there and try to do things that have love at their core. But make no mistake, I’ve got to serve me first, you know? I have to. And that doesn’t always look like love to the world, but it looks like love to me.
Yep, it’s official. I have a “mom crush” on The Avett Brothers.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan