In small-town Concord, NC, outside Charlotte in the state’s Piedmont area, Jim and Susie Avett raised two sons. Years later those boys would become the country’s favorite folk-rock act, the Avett Brothers. May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers gives viewers an intimate look into the brothers’ lives and creative practices. The documentary was shot over a two-year period as the group made its latest album, last year’s True Sadness. As told by the filmmakers, the story of the Avett Brothers is a parallel journey of developing their talent organically and meeting important strangers who change their lives. Their themes are welcome respites in modern music: the importance of family, the preciousness of the small moment, and the fire of spirituality. “Simple words, complex emotions,” as one fan says.
The film starts at the pinnacle to date of the group’s career, their remarkable Madison Square Garden debut last year, the same year their song “Ain’t No Man,” a lively tune about believing in oneself, went No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart. But first, some background: Scott is the older brother, memorably described by a friend as “like all the carnival rides thrown together.” Seth is four years younger, sweet and more low-key. As kids, Scott, of course, tortured younger Seth (their home movies are hilarious), but as they matured they became best friends and exquisite musical collaborators. They are now 41 and 37, respectively. Both are good-looking, long, lean, and with perfect teeth. Scott is the one with all the kids and Seth is the one with long hair, often set in braids.
Growing up, the boys didn’t want anything to do with the music of their family’s roots. The teenage Avett Brothers wanted to be rock stars — think Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain — and the louder the better. They played around Charlotte a bit, not doing much but making promising noise and dreaming of the big time.
Then one day, Seth met Doc Watson (1923-2012), the blind finger-picking guitar wizard from Deep Gap, up near Boone, who brought the WNC mode of folk — country blues, bluegrass gospel — to the masses beginning in the late 1960s. “I learned that power doesn’t come from volume,“ says Seth. “It comes from character. I came back to mountain music with a vengeance.”
From that day on, the brothers embraced the genre, expanding their instrumental skills by necessity while becoming master storytellers. Like the oldest traditional songs, theirs came from the joys and woes of daily life — children, illness, love found, love lost. Sometimes the song is a foot-stomping, chest-thumping sex cry (“Kick Drum Heart”). Other times it’s a merry but thoughtful paean to individuality (the amusing video for “Ain’t No Man” was filmed at the Asheville Airport). Seth’s acutely personal “Divorce Separation Blues” includes yodeling pitched like a primal scream. But although rooted in traditional music, their songs are unabashedly accessible; many of them, most notably “I and Love and You,” from the album of the same name, have aired on popular TV shows.
In 2001, when bassist Bob Crawford met Scott and Seth in a parking lot, he brought to the group more than just another instrument: he got them bigger gigs. They began to travel for the first time out of the Charlotte area, and started making more than waffle money. (Today, when they’re not writing songs, they travel almost constantly; the group is worth millions.)
The next year zealous music fan Dolph Ramseur heard them and became their manager. “I consider [Scott and Seth] the greatest songwriters to come out of North Carolina,” says Ramseur, who signed them to his fledgling record company. “What good fortune that they’re in the same group.” Seth quips: “We’ve become experts at reading our diaries onstage.” (The band also numbers cellist Joe Kwon, keyboardist Paul DeFiglia, drummer Mike Marsh, and fiddler Tania Elizabeth.)
Further along the way, they met A-list producer Rick Rubin, who revived Johnny Cash’s career and made stars out of acts as diverse as Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Slayer. “Within 30 seconds, I knew that being around them would make life better,” says Rubin.
True Sadness started on a snowy day in Asheville, at Echo Mountain Studios, which still looks like what it once was, a church with stained-glass windows. The setting seems appropriate to the soulful tunes that punctuate their repertoire. But the movie’s most unforgettable scene takes place at Shangri-La Studios, Rubin’s famed oceanside complex in Malibu. It’s the live recording of “No Enemies,” a heartfelt analysis of a man’s lifelong accomplishments. Seth’s performance leaves the band — and the film’s viewers — stunned: it feels like he ripped out his heart and handed it to you to hold for him.
Despite such interludes, the Avett brothers still live in Concord, down the road from one another, not far from their parents, and near sister Bonnie Avett, who has sometimes sung on stage with them. Rubin lists brother acts of the past where the siblings were notoriously at odds: The Kinks, BeeGees, The Everly Brothers — “they hated one another,” he says. With the Avetts, though, it’s a different story: “there is love and understanding … they appreciate what the other brings.”
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers
Quick Take: Behind-the-scenes look at the band’s personal life while they create their album True Sadness.
Players: The band, their families, manager and producer.
Co-director/producers: Judd Appatow (Hollywood comedies) and Michael Bonfiglio (documentaries)
Color and B&W, 104 minutes (2017)
The touring documentary shows one night at the Tryon Theatre (45 South Trade St.): Tuesday, September 12, 7pm. (828) 859-6811. www.tryontheatre.com. To reserve a spot, follow the link on the theater’s website to Eventbrite, the only source for tickets for this show.