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,” due to be released on Nov. 4 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,” he said.
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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 about the arc of his relationship with Brown and his music; about the quirks involved with recording the majority of the 10-track tribute in hotel rooms alone while on tour with The Avett Brothers; and about including on the album a colorful snippet of his young son that was recorded at his home in North Carolina.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you find out about Greg Brown in the first place?: 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.”
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?: 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.
When did you meet Greg?: 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.
I heard you started recording these songs in 2017. Did you send that letter to him before you started?: 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?”
What did you write in that first letter to Greg?: I think that right out of the gate I let him know of my fanship and that I had been spending a lot of time working on these songs. I can’t remember how directly I articulated it, but I was looking for his blessing. I was looking for his go-ahead. For the OK. And in retrospect now, it’s funny, ’cause of course (he was going to say yes). If you met him, he’s — the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “natural born sage.” He’s very calm. He has kind of a Buddha-like quality. Now after having some time with him I can’t imagine him ever trying to stop something, or get involved in a way that could be seen as an obstacle.
We wrote real letters back and forth a few times. Then I sent him a few songs. Then I went and visited him at his house in Iowa. We sat and hung out for maybe three, four hours, and that was really, really nice. It’s always a nice plus when you meet one of your heroes — they’re a hero through their artistry — but then you meet them and they’re good people. Or they’re kind and they’re gracious. And he’s just wonderful, man.
Have you continued to have a relationship with him?: Yeah, he’s become one of my teachers. We talk about art, I ask him questions. He’s had a very unique journey in his artistry, professionally and in terms of his actual output.
Like I said, he didn’t receive the commercial validation others have — and went ahead and did it anyway. Which is a whole other conversation. That’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot lately that just really is compelling, when you look at an artist in any regard that doesn’t count on any motivation from the outside world.
So there’s a lot to learn from him. And I’m really aware at this point, anytime I’m around an elder artist, I’m trying to soak up what I can. We just opened these three nights out here in California for Willie. We’ve been playing with Willie for 10 years. And every time we play a show with him, it’s like I’m at a school. I stand on the side of the stage, watch him, and I learn something every time. It’s a similar thing with Greg, even though it’s not performance-based. Just in conversations, to hear from an elder songwriter, elder artist, there’s always a lot to learn. So I try to be open to it, and so a lot of our correspondence was me being interested in getting his thoughts on different things related to artistry and a purpose-driven life.
So from a practical standpoint, how hard is it to record music in a hotel room?: Well, it’s not very hard if you embrace that you’re not in a studio. That was part of the process. I was trying to chill a little bit. When I was younger — when I was around 15 years old, when I’m discovering Greg — around that same time I’m having my first experiences in proper studios. Where you go in, there’s iso chambers, plexi, there’s a board, there’s pre-amps and all that stuff, and the red light goes on and you have to make a great recording. You’re trying to do your best to sound as good as you can.
From that time, I’ve built this fidelity obstacle. This thing that was always like, “I just want it to be clear and loud.” When I hear a real record — what I think of as a real record, like, if I listen to (Soundgarden’s) “Superunknown,” or (Nirvana’s) “Nevermind,” it’s big and loud and clear. And that comes from super-expensive microphones, preamps, perfectly designed rooms with all of the acoustics and all the angles just right, and a great engineer, and a $2,000-a-day studio and all this stuff. I painted myself into a corner with that, to where for myself I would have certain standards that were just completely unrealistic.
So I’ve actively tried to kinda work my way out of that a little bit. And this was a good practice in that, because it was like, “Look, if the air conditioner kicks on halfway through the song, it’s just in the mic. That’s just how it is.” You know, or like there’s birds chirping, or if there’s somebody walking by, and you hear it — or cars passing, or whatever — embrace that. Embrace it as reality. Don’t try to present something that’s not real. Let’s just admit it. I’m recording these songs in the hotel room. That’s just how it is.
And you can capture some magic, too, right? Like at the end of “Good Morning Coffee,” where you can hear your son Isaac whining to you and Jennifer (his wife Jennifer Carpenter Avett). (Isaac, who was 5 or 6 when the recording was made, can be heard asking, “How much longer till it’s over?” Jennifer laughs and Seth replies, “Soon.” “Soon is a long time to me!” Isaac cries.) I mean, I don’t know how much you went back and forth about whether to include that or not, but ...: Well, it was a little bit. I’m sure I’ll go on a journey with that in the future, especially when he realizes it’s on there and gets mad at me. But that was — I finished off a couple of songs, probably 10% of the album, at my house, in my home studio. So that happened there.
Basically I had to finish the song. I was like, “Hey, I need help doing a track where we’re gonna clap. I need hand claps.” This was a year, year and a half ago. I get him and Jennifer in there, I put headphones on everybody and “mm (claps), mm (claps), mm (claps), you know, ehh (claps), mm (claps)“ — I’m just trying to get a single clap and then a double clap, and his patience for it was very thin.
It was just hilarious. Any time I try to get him to do anything in the studio, it always ends up just this hilarious kinda disaster. And I was like, “This is just too funny to not include.” Plus, with little ones, they very accidentally hit on some profound statements here and there. And “Soon is a long time to me!” I was like, “Well, that’s just a brilliant little moment.”
Are you excited to play these songs live? (Alongside the album release on Nov. 4, Avett will open The Avett Brothers’ show at Brooklyn, New York’s Kings Theatre with a Greg Brown-centric set.): I am. Yeah, I’m getting there. Recording those songs was such a solitary sort of journey, but if you listen to his live recordings, you can see that these songs, they really make sense in a communal space, with a back and forth. So I think it’s high time to take these songs out of this solitary space and really share them, in real-time. So I’m definitely excited. I’m practicing them every day.
I just want to practice a little more. I mean, I’ve done a couple of solo shows, but it’s a funny thing, ’cause for all the shows we play, it’s a different thing going up there and doing a set alone.
Have you ever opened for yourself?: No. Scott and I have talked about it some. You look back at how the Dead used to do it. They used to do this kind of thing a lot. All the different entities within The Grateful Dead had all kinds of projects going on all the time. So they would have different members opening, and I think that could be a really special thing for fans.
I don’t know how sustainable it is to do it a lot, mechanically, ’cause we play some pretty long sets, just as The Avett Brothers. But yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s gonna be pretty cool. I think that’s an idea and an area that we could explore, and really learn about how that could amplify some of the fun and the special factor of some shows.