“You’re only saying you like them because Winston does.”
That was the first response I got on my Tumblr reblog of a video that Mumford and Sons’ Winston Marshall made promoting the latest Avett Brothers album.
First of all, rude!
Obsessing over the men you’re smitten with is what you do when you’re young, uninhibited by the shame of maturity, and have internet access. And anyone who knows me will tell you that I have been very smitten with Winston Marshall, whether they’ve seen my Tumblr or not. That’s not the point though.
I loved the Avett Brothers before I knew who Mumford and Sons were. It’s odd though, how much I adore those two fellas from Concord, North Carolina. It took a long time for me to claim North Carolina as home, to feel like I had sense of belonging here. Finding the Avett Brothers’ music plugged me into this whole new sense of identity. They’re ours, our hometown boys, the pride of our state, well them, Cheerwine, and college basketball.
I began a new life in North Carolina at the age of eleven, with only two-and-a-half months left of the fifth grade before summer vacation. Everything I knew, every comfort and friend, my entire extended family had been left behind in Florida.
“Who’s your team?” A boy in a red basketball jersey asked me on my first day as he filled out what I would later learn to be a sports bracket with crayon.
“The Marlins,” I answered confidently. They were my team. I’d been a die-hard Florida Marlins fan my whole life to that point. My dad used to take me to games a few times a season at Joe Robbie stadium. I loved them so much, I wanted to become the first woman to play pro ball so I could be on the team. Clearly, that didn’t pan out.
“No, your favorite basketball team!” The boy exclaimed, holding up the bracket.
Wrong again. He let out an exasperated groan and decided it was best to leave me alone in my ignorance. Every year when March Madness rolled around, I’d watch as my friends and classmates donned the jerseys of their team and harassed those wearing the colors of their sworn enemies. They filled out their brackets religiously and spoke a language of statistics that made me want to plug my ears. And the chants? (Duke is puke, Wake is fake, the team I hate is NC State, you can’t go to heaven in a red canoe cause God’s favorite color is Carolina Blue!) I’ll never be free from their rhyme-y tyranny.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of sports. My grandparents even met at a college basketball game. But I don’t belong to that. It doesn’t belong to me. That part of Carolina’s identity has no part in my own.
When the time came for me to go to college, my soul felt the call of the mountains and I enrolled at Appalachian State University. I fell in love the rolling mists and soft verdant peaks when I took part in a marching band competition there in my freshman year of high school. A good chunk of my classmates though had chosen App based on its football reputation. Sports again. Ugh.
I wanted to shun everything North Carolina seemed to stand for, the barbecue fixation , the drawling accents, the unhealthy obsession with college sports. I’m a romantic at heart! Give me culture, art, passion! Not sweaty dudes tossing balls and an accent that, at the time, sounded to me like a learning impediment (I have since grown to love it).
But one weekend something miraculous happened. Appalachian State hosted a folk music exhibition of sorts, and since I had chosen a music appreciation class as an easy elective credit, one of my assignments that week was to go to at least one concert and write about it. I picked the concert in the building closest to my dorm. College is about working smart, not hard, right? It happened to be a local group comprised of banjo, guitar, and fiddle.
Up until then, I’d always written off folk music. I had heard some stuff by Nickel Creek and liked them well enough, but thought that they were a one-off. I thought most folk bands sounded more like country music, which my mom and step-dad regularly had playing in their house. Frankly, I can’t stand the stuff. Except for Brad Paisley. He will forever be the exception there. I went in fully expecting my body to have an involuntary reaction of disgust, something like grinding teeth, eyes rolling back in my head, retching, etc. Quite the opposite happened. The mellow guitar lines, the flowing strands of the violin, and the percussive picking of the banjo stirred my soul. And the lyrics? A story of young star-crossed lovers trying to make their way back to each other. It swept me away.
I finally found the place where my identity intersected with North Carolina’s. I needed more lyrics like finely crafted love sonnets, more melodies that moved me emotionally and physically.
That’s how I found the Avett Brothers.
Their lyrics are often deeply romantic. Take for example, the first few lines of their track Offering:
Babe I’m lost
Cause I don’t know what to say
Mmm, I love you
Wanna make you my wife someday.
I don’t wanna steal you
Of a young woman’s life
To me it’s perfect
I just wanna do you right.
I’ve known others
I’ve loved others too
But I loved them as they were stepping-stones
On a staircase to you.
Can’t you just imagine how sweet it would be to hear that profession of tender adoration paired with the humble patience to let you be free? I get goosebumps picturing some raven-haired boy speaking those words to the girl he loves, standing on the steps of her front porch, probably fidgeting with a hat, hair hanging in his eyes as he stares nervously at the floor, too afraid of her response to look at her face. Writing is my passion, writing romance especially. But those simple lines seem to put many of my endeavors to shame, even more so when you hear the accompanying melody. The Avett’s lyrics are intelligently crafted and come from a place of raw and genuine emotion. Every track induces a response. You can’t help but sing along, sway, stomp your feet, dance, and whoop with joy whenever they do the same.
I consider the Avett Brothers my people; creatives, deeply in tune with their emotions. In being true to themselves, in exposing so publicly their passions, fears, desires, and weaknesses, they create art in the highest, most beautiful form. I aspire to leave my soul on the pages of my writings in the same way Scott and Seth bare theirs in each song.
I’ve often said that art begets art. If you put something radiant, beautiful, and true into the universe, it’s going to plant the seeds to create more. But beyond that, art brings comfort and belonging. Seeing others’ vulnerability allows you to lower your own defenses. Then, and only then, can you let others in.
This New Year’s Eve, I had the privilege of seeing the Avett Brothers in concert for the first time. It was honestly the first time I truly felt I belonged as a North Carolinian. Sure, at the end of the show, conversation would probably turn back to how pitifully the Panthers are doing this season and what March Madness might look like this year, but for those three(-ish) glorious hours I belonged. I got to sing along in real time, in person, with a pair of artists that I deeply admire. My voice and heart belonged to them and their hearts, emotions, and words belonged to all of us.
And it was beautiful.