Music of the Avetts: Scott, Seth - and Jim

When Jim Avett was young, he wrote a list of the things he wanted to do before he died.

Oil paintings. Traveling across North America.

The list is getting shorter, and some things have been marked off. Some things just didn't seem as important to him as time went on.

But one thing has never left the list: music.

The 63-year-old has been playing guitar and singing for 45 years, and he passed on his talent to his sons, Scott and Seth Avett, the namesake duo of the Concord-based band the Avett Brothers.

He's watched as his sons' careers progressed from small festivals to a recent performance at Radio City Music Hall.

But when he's at his sons' shows, he's probably not watching his boys on stage. He's watching the crowd.

"I'm looking for that girl dancing or that guy lost in his own world," he said.

He wants to see how their music has touched people. That's something he tries to do with his own music.

"The whole point of writing music is to touch people," he said. "The point isn't money or fame. It's getting the message out there and touching people."

Avett has released two albums under Ramseur Records, the same Concord-based label that released the Avett Brothers' music until the group signed with music mogul Rick Rubin's label in 2008.

"Jim Avett and Family," released in 2008, features gospel songs recorded in the living room of his home with his sons and his daughter, Bonnie.

Earlier this year, "Tribes" was released with country songs written almost exclusively by Avett.

Now Avett does about 50 shows a year. While he was in New York City for his sons' Radio City Music Hall performance, he played at a local dive.

When he's home, he heads twice a week to an old service station - now a mechanic's shop - for a picking session.

"If it's good, people will listen," said Avett. "And if it's not, we'll sit on the front porch and entertain ourselves."

Jim Avett's father was a Methodist preacher in Cabarrus County, where Avett spent his early years before moving to Caldwell County.

After high school, Jim Avett spent some time in college, then joined the Navy in 1967 during the Vietnam War.

He finished his time in the Navy four years later, enrolled at UNC Greensboro and eventually earned a master's degree in psychology.

He worked for the state for two years with child abuse and neglect cases. But it wasn't where he wanted to be, he said.

"You've got one life to live," he said. "If you're not where you want to be, do something about it."

He quit in 1974 and moved his family to Alaska briefly, then to Wyoming, where Scott was born. While in Wyoming, Avett began working as a welder.

The family returned to North Carolina a few years later and bought land in Cabarrus County that belonged to Avett's father. Avett resumed work as a welder and made plans to build a house.

But an elderly man living nearby offered him an old house, which had no bathrooms, no electrical outlets and no insulation. Avett thought he was kidding. He wasn't.

Avett took him up on his offer and set to work repairing the old home.

Avett and his wife of more than 40 years, Susie, still live in that house in rural Concord.

Music in the family

His repairs to the home included the addition of a second-level room that became his music room, where he keeps his collection of more than 70 guitars.

Listening to an instrumental guitar piece, Avett pushed his glasses up on his forehead and held his hand over his chin, keenly taking in the music.

"Isn't that something?" he said.

His mother was a concert pianist who studied music. He thinks she's the source of his family's musical talents.

All his children started out playing the piano. Bonnie still plays piano and teaches dance. His sons took an interest in guitar.

Avett recalled teaching Seth his first song on the guitar: "My Grandfather's Clock." Seth was 12, maybe younger.

"I taught them everything I know," he said.

Avett is a B-side kind of guy. Strumming and singing in his music room, Avett said he's always admired the writing talents of artists like Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall.

"Don't worry, it won't be a loud party," he sang, playing a Merle Haggard tune. "I feel too low to get too high. It's just a sad goin' away party for a dream I'm telling goodbye."

He stopped, shaking his head.

"What a line," he said. "Why didn't I write that?"

Avett thinks the strength of his sons' lyrics have contributed to their band's success.

"Their lyrics are right on the money," he said.

But in the end, it's about luck, he said. And the boys had it.

"The stars pretty well lined up for us," he said.

The family never suspected the Avett Brothers would go as far as they've gone, but their father said he's not living through his boys. He's got too many things left on his own list.

He said a lot of people have asked when he realized the boys had "made it."

"We don't sit around wondering if they've made it today," he said.

'This is what daddies do'

But there is one moment that sticks out in his mind: It came when he stepped out on stage before the Avett Brothers performed at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

"Anybody ever worth anything had stood on that stage, and the rest wish they had been there," he said. "I never thought anyone kin to me would be standing on that stage."

Sure, he's proud. "But I'm really proud when they can help me with the hay for the cows," he said.

Avett's and his sons' music differ in style, but their father's influence is obvious.

The Avett Brothers perform "Signs," a song written by the elder Avett, on their 2004 album, "Mignonette."

One of the last tracks on the same album is a recording of the song Avett did in the 1970s with a throw-together band in Greensboro.

"I like my version better," he said with a grin.

After he recorded the song, he found the mailing addresses for 25 music labels, sent them the recordings and left for Alaska the next week.

He got a few responses, but not much came of the recording. He had other things on his list.

Avett said his son Scott once said in an interview that his father gave up a musical career so he and his brother could have one. Avett shook his head. He never left music, he said.

"There's never been a debt owed," he said. "This is what daddies do."