Keeping up with Jim Avett: Life on the B-side
By Sarah Hall
The former gas station near Concord, N.C. would look abandoned if it weren’t for some broken cars and used parts surrounding it, indicating it’s still used as a mechanic’s shop.
Except on Tuesday and Thursday nights, when cars crowd the parking lot. People carrying guitar cases breeze through the service bay and into the shop’s dimly lit interior room where the cinder block walls are decorated with concert posters, beer signs, and instruments.
I was there by invitation, told by my host, Jim Avett, “You can come if you absolutely don’t have anything better to do.”
Those who showed up on this particular Tuesday, either to play or to listen, sat in a horseshoe formation, with Jim holding court in the middle, calling the shots and taking the lead. I wondered how the others decide what to play when he’s out of town.
The group that gathers there consists of seasoned guitar players and novices ó all are welcome. Lori Horton joins in on harmonica. She says she’s been coming there for 15 or 16 years, and that she has made lasting friendships. There are regulars, and people who show up out of the blue. Sometimes three people come to play, sometimes 10.
Lori hands out bottle caps.
“This is our applause meter” she says.
Listeners don’t clap, they toss bottle caps toward the players. The more clinks on the concrete floor, the more they liked the performance.
The songs vary from country and western to hymns. “I’ll Fly Away” may be followed by a Hank Williams tune. They sing that “Old habits like you are hard to break,” and “Amazing Grace.”
I listen, snap photos, and take notes. After they sing “I Like Women a Little on the Trashy Side,” Jim announces, “Sarah was writing furiously during that one.”
The assembly seems a little clandestine, but Jim points out that gatherings such as this are all over, saying “If you wanted to play every night, you couldóin someone’s garage, on someone’s back porch. But you don’t hear about them unless you talk to someone who knows, like the guy in the guitar shop.”
And I wouldn’t have known about it, if I hadn’t met Jim Avett after contacting him about an upcoming performance, the Ramseur Records Showcase at The Visulite Theatre in Charlotte.
Ramseur, based in Concord, will be featuring several of its artists that night: Paleface, Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers, Bombadil. But I had already written about all of them.
So I focused instead on the remaining act, Jim Avett and Friends. I knew that Ramseur Records’ best-known artists, The Avett Brothers, Scott and Seth, came from a musical family, and I correctly deduced that Jim was their father.
Satisfied that I indeed work for a newspaper and I’m not a crazed fan trying to get access to his sons, Jim let me hang around with him, not just once, but several times.
One thing Jim Avett likes as much as singing is talking. He likes talking more than eating, apparently, because his barbecue was practically untouched as he locquaciously entertained me over lunch, expounding on an amazing number of topics in a short amount of time.
He has plenty to talk about, having, it seems, fit more into 61 years than would have filled three other men’s lives.
He was the son of a Methodist minister, so his family moved around, his youth spent in several North Carolina towns. As an adult, he continued wandering.
He served in the Navy, then after marrying wife Susie (they’ve been together 40 years) and the birth of daughter Bonnie, they headed for Alaska. They also tried Colorado, Montana and Wyoming (Scott was born in Cheyenne) before returning to North Carolina and settling on ancestral land near Mt. Pleasant. Youngest son Seth completed the family.
Amid all this, he completed an advanced degree in psychology, and worked as a psychology professor and a social worker, trained in welding, built bridges, planted, baled hay, and cared for livestock on his farm, played guitar and sang.
Now “retired” from the welding business, he can pursue one of his favorite pastimesóattending Avett Brothers concerts. He enjoys picking random fans in the audience to surprise by taking them backstage.
“People always say ‘I bet you’re proud of your boys,'”Jim snorts. “My daughter doesn’t go out and perform ó does that mean I’m ashamed of her? I’m proud of the boys when they come home and mow my grass or help fix my septic tank.”
Of course, the delight he takes in his entire family is evident as he speaks of all of them. He shows me photos of his grandchildren.
He takes pride in the fact that Scott and Seth grew up with no MTV and fairly oblivious to fads and trends. Maybe this is a reason they found their own, original sound.
And he says the boys learned a lot about life by living and working on the farm that they still return to whenever they have a chance.
When he isn’t talking about family, I learn of Jim’s love of literature (he has a large library), and classic cars.
“I like old books, old cars and old women,” he laughs.
He also has a large guitar collection and a huge collection of vinyl records.
“I tend to prefer the B-sides,” he says. “Someday I want to record an album that’s all covers of B-sides.”
When Jim and his friend and side man Ray Morton drove to Greensboro for a film session in the studio Harvey’s Kitchen, they let me come along for the ride.
They were being filmed for the Dot Matrix Project. This is a group consisting of musicians, photographers, videographers who record and document acts in Greensboro and nearby counties in North Carolina.
During the trip, Jim and Ray made fun of me for being so quiet. I told them I prefer to listen instead of talk, but truth is, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
The route from Salisbury to Greensboro went through some of Jim’s childhood stomping ground, giving him the opportunity to reminisce. And crossing the Yadkin River prompted him to reveal his knowledge of the region’s history. He spoke of Stoneman’s raid, and recalled the traces of Civil War encampments that were still visible around the Yadkin during his boyhood.
Driving by Guilford College, Jim recounted how he had been kicked out of there. And that was after he had already been kicked out of Pfeiffer College for a having a sawed-off shotgun and two cans of beer in his car.
“And they weren’t even mine!” he exclaims. “If I’d known the beer was back there, I would have drunk it. And a guy asked if I would cut off the gun for him, and I still had it. The worst part was telling my Daddy I’d wasted his money.”
It was also during this trip that I found out about those service station jam sessions, where Ray is also a regular.
“Do you think the guys there would mind if I show up with a camera?” I asked.
“Who cares?” exclaims Jim.
I get the impression he does what he wants, and says what he pleases. He’s not trying to impress anyone, or do what’s expected.
Maybe that’s why he prefers the B-sides.
– – –
Jim Avett and Friends will perform during the Ramseur Records Showcase Friday, May 22, at The Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., Charlotte. Doors open at 8 p.m., show starts at 8:30. Admission is $10.
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