Jim Avett is sitting on his front porch in Concord, N.C., phone pressed to his ear, rattling off the life lessons that lit a fire under the corduroy back-pockets of his sons, Seth and Scott.
You might recognize those two as the Avett Brothers, the fraternal folk-rock revivalists who recently performed alongside Bob Dylan at the Grammys. Turns out, their 64-year-old dad is a country singer in his own right — and one who has relaunched his musical career in the wake of his kids’ success.
But on the phone, Jim Avett — who performs Sunday at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington — would rather talk about what it’s like to raise songwriters than about what it’s like to actually be one.
On mentorship: “You gotta have some heroes that are worth their salt.”
On faith: “If you’re to believe in yourself, you’ve gotta believe in something else.”
On musicianship: “Play the instrument the way you play it, and if it’s good, if it’s entertaining, people will come to see it. If it’s not, you come home and we’ll make music on the porch right here.”
On generation gaps: “The reason old people hate kids is ’cause they have so much [darn] energy!”
Seth and Scott Avett, both in their 30s, still have plenty of energy. An Avett Brothers concert is a sweat-dripping, foot-stomping, throat-hoarsing affair. A Jim Avett show is much quieter. At Iota, expect acoustic guitars delicately picked and ballads softly sung.
What the father and his sons have in common is a knack for vocal harmonies, something Jim Avett learned as a boy growing up in the foothills of North Carolina.
“We sang in the car, we sang in church. It was something that came natural,” he says of his youth. “If someone started singing a song, you’d make harmony with ’em.”
Avett’s father was a traveling Methodist preacher. His mother was a concert pianist who started him and his two siblings on the piano. Avett and his wife, Susie, would raise their three kids — Seth, Scott and their older sister, Bonnie — the same way.
But unlike his parents, Avett followed a career path that reads like something out of a great American adventure novel. He served in the Navy. He earned a degree in psychology and became a social worker. He wrote folk songs. His short-lived band, Common Decency, recorded an album before splitting in 1973. (The Avett Brothers covered Common Decency’s “Signs” in 2004.) He bred Dobermans. He learned to become a welder. He moved his family to Alaska and Wyoming before returning to North Carolina to live on a farm and start a welding company that specialized in bridges. Next time you’re stuck in traffic at the Springfield interchange, look up at the overpasses. Those steel beams are Avett’s handwork.
And during all of this, Avett put his music on hold. “If I would have had a music career, it probably wouldn’t have been much,” he says. “There’s a time when moms and dads need to give it up. It’s [your kids’] life, it’s not yours. A lot of parents will see themselves through their kids in sports. They’ll push ’em hard to be good at football or be good at basketball. I don’t give a [darn] if they play ball one way or another.”
Once the Avett Brothers found success, they encouraged their dad to pick up music again. He retired from the welding business on his 62nd birthday and now has two albums to his name — 2008’s “Jim Avett and Family” and 2010’s “Tribes.”
Nowadays, the advice he gives to his songwriting sons is the same advice he gives to his songwriting self.
“All of us will not let a song go until we’re absolutely sure that it says what we want it to say,” Avett says. “When you approach it that way, songs will come.”
Jim Avett performs at the Iota Club and Cafe on Sunday.