Why one of The Avett Brothers recorded a solo tribute album in random hotel rooms
Unless you have a fairly strong familiarity with contemporary folk artists of the American Midwest, you might look at the title of Concord native Seth Avett’s solo album, “Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown,” which was released at the start of the month, and wonder, “Uhh, who is Greg Brown?”
The 42-year-old co-founding member of The Avett Brothers isn’t alarmed or bothered by that at all.
“I think my go-to is more kind of surprised when people do know him,” Avett said in a recent Zoom call from California, where he and his older brother, Scott, and their band recently wrapped a string of dates supporting Willie Nelson on the Outlaw Music Festival Tour. “Not that Greg is completely unknown. ... He, to my mind, is one of the greatest living songwriters. He’s one of the greatest of the last four decades. ...
“So when people say that they’re unfamiliar with his work, it’s just fuel for the fire. It’s a reminder that this did make sense to share, ‘cause it’s exciting to be a bridge, to possibly help be an introduction of something good into someone’s life.”
Brown, who released more than 30 albums between the mid-1970s and 2012, is now 73 and living in his home state of Iowa.
Seth Avett spoke to The Charlotte Observer recently. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. How did you find out about Greg Brown in the first place?
A. It was completely (my father discovering him on NPR’s) “A Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Keillor. In the mid-’90s. I was about 15. Greg was actually a full-on member of the “Prairie Home Companion” cast. He was part of it for two years in the ‘80s — ‘86, ‘87, something like that. But when we heard him, he was just on as a musical guest. But yeah, Dad heard him on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Heard that song “Boomtown.” And that was the introduction to him. Then we got (Brown’s 1995) “The Live One” record and then it was just on for me. ‘Cause then I heard (Brown’s song) “Laughing River” and then oh, I was just like, “Man. It’s on. It’s on. I gotta find everything this guy’s done.”
Q. When I was a teenager, I remember listening to lyrics, but not really hearing them. Was that important to you, really focusing on and processing the words in songs?
A. By then it was, yeah. I mean, I think that as a younger child I probably was in the same boat in terms of responding really just to textures, and not so much meaning. When you’re a little kid, maybe it’s just because you don’t have the point of reference. You don’t have the understanding of a lot of things that might be talked about in lyricism, at least in the folk world, where a lot of them might just be alien concepts.
But by then — by 15 years old or so — I was really ready to hear lyrics. And “Laughing River’s” a good example. But a lot of that genre, the lyrics are on the forefront. The guitar, or whatever the accompanying instrument is, is more or less just a means to an end. The end is the lyrics. And I was really open to it at that point.
Plus, I was really in the midst of my own personal renaissance of American roots discovery, and being familiar with Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers — all of that was really exciting, but it felt like it was of another time. A time that I wasn’t completely a part of. It was maybe part of my DNA, or part of where I was raised. But the current element of Greg Brown felt different. It was like, “Oh, so this is what can be done right now under the umbrella of folk music, or American roots music. It’s not of another time. It’s of right now. It is. (Snaps fingers.) Yeah, it’s just an acoustic guitar and vocal, but it’s now. It’s the present.”
I don’t know if I would have articulated it then like that. But I think that’s what was happening. I was seeing that there was a present and a future, and a way for maybe me to be a part of it.
Q. When did you meet Greg?
A. Well, for the first time, I met him in, I’m guessing, ‘07 maybe? At Pickathon out in Oregon. We were playing the same festival. I remember it was warm, and I met him just briefly. It was a moment of meeting your hero. He was like, “All right, nice to meet you, kid.” That was it. But then during the process of making this record — or once I realized it was gonna be a record — I ended up writing him a letter.
Q. I heard you started recording these songs in 2017. Did you send that letter to him before you started?
A. No, it was well into it; 2020 or 2021. And I’m like this with a lot of wanderings that I have artistically. If it’s something that feels very much like an independent inspiration, I might dig in pretty far before I talk with anyone else about it.
This didn’t start out as me saying, “I’m gonna make a record.” It started out as an exercise to stay sane on the road, and record his songs as a way of healthily filling a day off in a hotel room, basically. This was an exercise in solitude. Then later it was like, “Aw, you know, maybe I’m getting good enough sounds to share this at some point.”
And it was exciting, to be on this path of discovery with these songs, and learning how fluid the songs are, and how much space there is to inhabit them, and to interpret them naturally through my own sensibilities. I feel like there are certain pieces of music that are more rigid, where they have to be just so. But now I realize in retrospect, with Greg’s songs, probably part of what draws me to them so much is because they have that quality — of fluidity and of space, to hear it in your own way. Then, if you learn it, to play it in your own way.
But no, not that I thought of it as a secret; it was more or less a practice. Just a practice. Like a meditation practice. “I have this space in the day.” So I’d lug all the stuff into the hotel room, set it up, and then chase my tail with whatever Greg Brown song happens to be on my mind that day. Then after I got five or six, seven, eight songs in, I started thinking, “Oh. Well, maybe this could be dressed up a little bit.” I could see it as a record. I could see it as something to be shared. (Avett Brothers fiddler) Donny (Herron), who played with Bob Dylan, who used to play in BR549, is a good friend, and he always used this phrase: “Let’s see if we can put this pig in a dress.” So I started looking at these recordings and going, “Maybe I could put this pig in a dress?”