North Carolina rock band The Avett Brothers come from a literary tradition of sorts. Clegg Avett, grandfather to band leaders Scott and Seth Avett, was a preacher whose writings were published in the ‘70s, a collection that has inspired Scott ever since.
The band’s latest album, Magpie and the Dandelion — which came out in mid-October — draws on Clegg’s writing in an overarching way. For Scott, books are a way to tap into one’s potential and to aspire to something beyond what you are now. We spoke with the musician about his literary tendencies and what sorts of books have influenced the Avett Brothers’ music.
It’s interesting because I’m kind of reliving my childhood with my children. I have to say “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. The sympathetic notion and mood of the book is so terribly sad, even though it’s a children’s book. They’re always short in words for that age group, but the negative space is so weighty and amazing and beautiful. I discovered that book and “The Little House” [by Virginia Lee Burton] again. Both of those are very relevant in my life today and when I read them recently I realized how much I got from those books.
Paper or digital?
I have an iPad and I bought one of those Nooks. I have books on my phone, but there’s something unattractive about it to me. It makes me feel a little bit anxious. So I put the Nook in my drawer and haven’t used it. I just tote books around me and I keep my bunk in my bus filled with books.
Do you think you can fairly judge a book by its cover?
Well, I do it all the time! But, really, no way. I’ve done that with our fans all the time. I have been let down in the perspective so many times or let up. There have been times where I’m looking at this guy in the crowd thinking, “He wants us to leave,” and then I found out he was the greatest, warmest, most engaged fan ever. As far as books, though, I can’t stand a bad cover. I am a visual person and when they’re bad I’m just not going to buy them.
What’s the best book you’ve read on tour?
There are a lot of things that makes one the best. A fan that become a friend later recommended “Air Guitar” by Dave Hickey. That book really let me in on some things that I was later going to be experiencing and living and didn’t know about yet. I was feeling some of things as an artist and someone interested in being educated visually as well as musically. That book was all-encompassing to me and very important. There was [also] a series of three books that completely changed me and opened me up spiritually, which started with a collection of my grandfather’s sermons. It’s called “For the People” by Clegg Avett. That led me to Gandhi’s autobiography and that led me to “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy. I fell deep into Tolstoy for probably three years.
What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” by Willie Nelson as well as a book called “Confederates in the Attic” about the South’s obsession with the Civil War. I also keep a constant flow with Henri-Frederic Amiel’s journals. They’re just amazing. I can always sit down and read a couple of his entries.
What’s the most times you’ve read a certain book?
I guess “Air Guitar.” I maybe read that three times. But no more than that. I don’t think I’ve retraced books.
Do you ever find that things you read make their way into your songs?
Absolutely. On our new record Magpie and the Dandelion there’s a reference to “being dead to the high and alive to the low,” which is something my grandfather wrote. I can’t remember if that’s exactly how he said it, but that’s how I interpreted it. The high being whatever you say it is and the low being whatever you say it is. That influenced quite a bit. That’s just me trying to express my interest in refinement and betterment. It’s all aspiration. Books seem to do that. Books seem to provide a lot of hope and opportunities to compose what we want to be. It seems like we dive into them looking for something like that and in songs you take from what you read and the more you read the better it comes out.
What book would you recommend to fans of your music?
I recommend “Air Guitar” all the time. I get a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why an artist does certain things or why people praise an artist for certain things. This book does a very good job of exposing what the real American fan is. It’s really key. I would also always recommend “A Calendar of Wisdom” by Tolstoy. It’s many writers in his collection.