Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel

Last night, Rachel & I went to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I can’t commend this documentary enough, and not just because I’m an unashamed fan of this band. There is something on display in their music and this film that pushes back, gently but firmly, against so many cultural orthodoxies and idols.

I can’t quite name them all, but the desire to lean in to hard truths and deep pain (rather than fleeing them with all possible speed) is close to the core of it. At one point in the film, Scott Avett, describing the season when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and band members kept vigil with the family at the hospital, said, “That’s when we grew up as men.” It’s a tacit recognition that maturity only comes through suffering, and that the greatest joys in life lie on the other side of such experiences.

One other moment sticks out, as well. Seth Avett described his reintroduction to folk and bluegrass music through spending time with Doc Watson as a young adult. Doc is not a “nobody” by any stretch, but he is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. Quite a number of artists trace their career success back to his influence, and he is, in some measure responsible for the return of “Americana” music to mainstream consciousness. For me, Doc is an emblem of home, for reasons described below in some thoughts I wrote after learning of his death over five years ago.


May 30, 2012.

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he struck me as a genuinely humble and grateful man—the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about Christ and the Church are any indication, Doc’s love for these themes was anything but cultural. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: “When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of Scripture and modeled in the faithful witness of believers.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Christ, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to hope again. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, mercifully, on our own merit.

“Uncloudy Day”
by Josiah K. Allwood, Public Domain

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Photo © Ken Ketchie, www.boonencinfo.com

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Something Else Matters Most: Music for an Anxious Age

“Just do your best. It’s the only way to keep that last bit of sanity. Maybe I don’t have to be good, but I can try to be at least a little better than I’ve been so far.”
~ The Avett Brothers, “When I Drink”

I dearly love music.

The ability to create (good) music remains a bit beyond my grasp, and so I’ve always admired the creations of others—preferably at a volume suitable to parse nuances of vocals and instrumentation. This fact is to the frequent chagrin of family, co-workers, and fellow vehicle passengers. Thank the Lord for headphones. My tastes, such as they are, range all over, leaping genres and centuries from one hour to the next. I have affinity for particular bands or composers (and even interpretations thereof) more so than broad, industry-determined categories. I own plenty of albums/songs from years of gathering (more than I have time to listen to regularly), but even that collection doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of preference with access to of Pandora, Spotify, and the maddening diaspora of choice.

It is probably not surprising then that I could not name a single “favorite” song or musician. Taste is a horrible thing to quantify. Still, if there has been a soundtrack to life of late, though, it has been the Avett Brothers.

Perhaps there is some deep, rumbling affection toward them from my North Carolina expat heart. Maybe it is their legendary engagement with fans throughout an always-full tour schedule. It could be their relentless creativity, as they reinvent themselves from album to album without losing their core dynamic. At bottom, though, I engage with Scott, Seth, Bob, Joe, et al., as poets as much as musicians.

Avetts

Photo © James Nix, Independent Tribune

The success of their recent albums comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening for a while (and if having Judd Apatow direct a documentary on your band isn’t the heights of popular culture, I’m not sure what is). Plenty of better critics than me have reviewed the Avett’s music and chronicled their rise to fame. I’ll even sidestep the question of taste. What interests me is not whether their music is good (though I’d fight anyone who says otherwise), but why it has risen to the heights of culture right now.

Why, in a culture obsessed with the new, do songs dealing with the pain and sorrow of the past chart right behind poseur pop stars and forgettable tween idols? Why, in a world where familial, social, and political bands have all but dissolved, does simple, honest music cut through the mess to draw people together? Something else matters most, and, try as we might, there is no escaping it. The Avetts are among a very few musicians who dive right into the spiritual/relational hunger of our anxious age.

The Avett Brothers’ style is hard to nail down. Ostensibly beginning as a bluegrass group, they simultaneously evoke Southern Rock, folk, emo, and even electronica. Somehow they manage to be both high-hipster and down-home country. They remind me most broadly, though, of 70s music.

I know that’s not a genre either, but the 1970s were a golden age of music. It was the mainstream glam pop of Elton John and David Bowie, but not just that. It was the arena rock of Boston, Kansas, or Journey, but not just that. It was the R&B, Funk, Disco, or Memphis Soul, but not just that. It wasn’t even just the zenith of soft-rock, with James Taylor, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg. The 1970s was all of this, humming in the background of a decade-long cultural trainwreck.

That trainwreck (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Cold War, coups & revolutions, stagflation, and general malaise) could’ve been precisely what made the music go. In a time of political, economic, and social dysfunction, we turn inward, searching for our lost stability in love, family, and faith. Enduring art always needs a little prodding from external discomfort—when the black hole yawns widest, the artist feels most alive.

Culturally, it seems that we are now living through a 70s redux (though 2016-17 has seemed a little more 1968 than any of us are comfortable with). Musically, then, it stands to reason that the explosion of soul-searching indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Head and the Heart, etc.) would be a natural result. It is the Avetts, though, who emerge as the second coming of all your 70s favorites, because they manage evoke them all.

Though there is something reassuringly familiar about each of their songs, they do not subsist on nostalgia. Each album manages to be fresh and new. Rather than spending all their reserves on their debut project, they work and mature, genuinely getting better with age. They are even getting more overtly religious, boldly incorporating biblical language and flouting the increasing pop-culture taboos against Christianity.

The vapidity of much of what passes for “Christian music” these days may be driving the rise of thoughtful voices in the rest of the industry just as much as it has led to the decline and fall of the Christian Contemporary labels. When the Avetts can earnestly lament depression, alcoholism, pornography and rejoice in the promise of friendship and redemption (all in one song!) with musical excellence, why bother creating a counterculture? Moreover, they’ve recently announced that a new recording project (a joint effort with Scott & Seth’s dad, Jim Avett) will be a gospel album.

So it’s here I’ll take my stand, proclaiming an undying love for this band. Taste? Sure, but some things matter even more. While the mainstream continues rushing away from truth and beauty, we need more and more to be reassured that the simpler themes of life, death, love, loss, joy, and pain still carry the day. People are looking for other things to live by, and the mournful hope proffered by the Avetts is pointing the way for many.

I went on the search for something real.
Traded what I know for how I feel.
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
The light broke in and brought me to my feet.

There’s no fortune at the end of the road that has no end.
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them.
There’s no falling back to sleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream.
Now I’m rested and I’m ready,
I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.

~ The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”

Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune