The Sacrificial Art of the Avett Brothers

This piece comes from one of Both/And’s regular contributors, Alex Sosler. You can follow him on Twitter @alexsosler.

Full disclosure: when it comes to the Avett Brothers, I am at best a fair weather fan. But, their new documentary on HBO, May It Last, had me in a bluegrass fervor. Watching the film resulted in a sweet nostalgia similar to the feeling after seeing someone live—as if you’re romantically connected with them—like they sang for you and now you can’t help but vouch for them. And in the subsequent days to viewing the documentary, most spare moments are attended by the Avett Brothers playing in the background, as is the case as I write now.

In the documentary May It Last, director Judd Apatow provides a window into the lives of Scott and Seth Avett as they showcase their music, relationship, and moving tour performances. The documentary is a living testament to the Avett Brothers bond throughout the creative process: growing up, growing old, and maintaining their friendship. My inner Wendell Berry swoons as the brothers speak of the value of rootedness and place, noticing that the pursuit of big and famous does not necessitate a move to Hollywood and the big show. The brothers are content to live in their hometown within miles from their family. Their purposeful creativity abounds throughout the film in ways big and small; instead of a television, the brothers keep instruments in central living areas of the home to encourage creativity and collaboration.

One particularly moving scene comes at the end of the film as the whole band is together at a recording studio in Malibu. The track rolls and Seth begins to sing “No Hard Feelings.” It’s an emotionally intense song and both brothers are visibly affected by its weight. The last note sounds and a brief pause of silence lingers. As the recording shuts off, the brothers are congratulated by high fives and comments like, “That was a ‘home run.'” But the brothers are despondent and distant, perhaps even annoyed. If you review the lyrics, the song is a reflection on death, remembering, forgiveness, and destiny. How do you say “good job” for someone who just bore you their soul?

As Scott admits, their emotional unpacking in front of audiences has become routine; they signed up for it by writing meaningful songs. It’s much like reading your journal; all of the heartache, loneliness, and pain on display in front of thousands of people. What the Avett Brothers reveal is the heartbreak of true creativity.

In a digital age driven by likes and “authentic posts,” the Avett Brothers offer their contributions toward different ends. Rather than posting something reaching for comfort and solace for self, their exposed emotions create a bridge between them and their audience. they do the hard work so that we can feel comforted. It is a bridge supported by empathy where audiences can relate and say “you feel like that too?” Such a bridge calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on friendship:

Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.

But unlike Lewis’s imagery of friendship, The Avett Brothers bear the burden of commiseration in a different way. It’s not a mutual sacrifice like many friendships; these are artists who become vulnerable so that listeners can relate. This creative process bears a burden for the other.

We would do well to sit and contemplate the sacrifice interwoven in the Avett Brothers’ craft. Unfortunately, this is proving more difficult in contemporary culture. And what is more disconcerting is that most mainline “christian” art is no different; too often, the theme of sacrifice is absent. Or even if it is present, it’s a blip on the radar, a vague, brief obstacle to overcome on our way to “happily ever after.” To be sure, our light and momentary troubles are outweighed by eternal hope (2 Cor. 4:17) but that doesn’t negate the thorn that festers and burns in the here and now. But tune to most christian stations and you’ll likely hear positive thinking bathed in rainbows and sunshine instead of any tangible struggle that conjures up what we’ve desperately been holding in. Sometimes, it’s the songs of sacrifice that invite the hard work of steadfastness and patience as we sit in tension and learn. And in so doing, we are reminded that Christ is the one who bears our burdens; his example a charge for Christian creatives to follow in his footsteps. This may bring some unresolved tension, but isn’t that the dynamic in which we live? Shouldn’t art, especially art created by Christians – above all art – be sacrificial?

In reflection, Scott says that “No Hard Feelings” is the best song they bring to the table because it brings the most sacrifice—not in terms of technical ability or skill or discipline or training—but the sacrifice of a heart split open. Talking himself through it during the movie, Scott concludes, “The evidence of the struggle resulted in something beautiful.” I wish that wasn’t so. I wish a good life, like good art, could be birthed through daisies, butterflies, and roses. But most often, the best of life, like the best of songs, come only after the dead of night.

In the music of The Avett Brothers, we can see a reflection of life and death. They’ve done the hard work of sacrifice and suffering for us, and they bring up the gold at the bottom so that whenever we find ourselves there, we can know this road has been traveled before. They are companions for us. They offer deep hope through deep struggle.

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