Walking a Different Highway: My Love Story with The Avett Brothers

Ed. Note: Our “Love Story” feature encourages writers to tell the story behind their love for their favorite movie, band, or television show. Today, Amanda writes about The Avett Brothers.

By the summer of 2012, I had grown into a miserable person. I worked long hours under a great amount of stress at a job that I no longer believed in. I had long been bandaging over the emotional and spiritual wounds of not caring about my work with money and materialism. That was natural – money was the only thing I was getting out of the job. But I had even grown weary of the false joy that brought. I found myself dull and lifeless in the mirror. I was sad and exhausted. No matter how hard I tried to sand down my edges to force myself to fit into that life, they stubbornly remained. After years of chasing promotions/raises/bonuses and trying to convince myself I had corporate aspirations, I was the least happy I had ever been.

So when the day came when I had decided to resign, I sat in my driveway, taking deep breaths, trying to gather the courage to quit. Quitting the job wasn’t the scary thing; though walking away from a salary, benefits, and stability was no overnight decision. Quitting this job, in my mind, was admitting to the world that I had been something of a fraud for years. I had once been a girl who wanted to write, create, and help others, but now I was mostly consuming energy and grinding as a cog in a machine. The time had come to retreat and find my way again. Before starting my drive into the office, I put my iPod on shuffle and started the music. “A Gift for Melody Anne” by The Avett Brothers blared from my speakers. God. Kismet. Coincidence. I didn’t care where it came from. I was being told that I had finally found my feet on the right road again.

I wanna get back, I wanna get square
I want to get back all the hopes and dreams that I had
That the good Lord above us can spare
Like that actor said: “I don’t wanna lose heart!!”
I don’t want to get beat beat down by the big big world
Or quit before I even start

Lord I just want my life to be true
And I just want my heart to be true
And I just want my words to be true
I want my soul to feel brand new
-“A Gift for Melody Anne”

I was peripherally aware of The Avett Brothers as far back as 2005; I can’t claim to be a fan from the beginning, and the few listens I gave them back then failed to leave an impression. It wasn’t until 2008, when there was significant buzz around I and Love and You, their first major label release, that I really started to listen. Known as a band to embrace the relationship with their fans, I somehow found my way listening to their music via YouTube, where they post lots of exclusive content – stripped down versions of album songs, covers, and concert footage. I liked it, but my soul wasn’t yet hearing it. They felt too familiar to something I was trying to leave behind. At this time, I had just moved from my home community in rural West Virginia. I was letting go of aspirations of being a writer and trying to embrace a different life path at the very job I would quit in 2012.

Because my first few post-college years were during the economic crash, the instability scared me into abandoning what I thought were just childhood dreams. I created a new trajectory for myself and threw everything I had into it. I began to believe that success looked like a specific job title and that happiness looked like a specific salary range.

Some say with age that a purpose comes clear
I see the opposite happening here
Are we losing the fight?
Are we growing backwards with time?
-“Backwards With Time”

Then, on a whim, I bought last-minute tickets to see The Avett Brothers in 2009 while they made their way through Roanoke. And like I have heard from so many other fans, seeing them live changed everything. I had seen punk bands less energetic. I had seen church services less spiritual. What I realize now, what I was trying to push away then, was that the music of The Avett Brothers felt like home, and home wasn’t going to let me run away.

There was no standard choir in the church I grew up in. Instead, I heard banjos, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and hymns colored with bluegrass inflections. My dad fed me a steady diet of 70s rock; we bonded most over a shared love of the blues-tinged mix of country and rock perfected by Creedence Clearwater Revival. My mom loved classic country, oldies, and anything with good harmonies. I was young when Nirvana was at their height, but my older brother was serious about them, and so I took them seriously.

In Roanoke, June 2013. Sadly, Joe and Mike are missing from this picture.

When I listen to The Avett Brothers, I hear all of that. I hear my entire life, and I relate to “strumming my pain with his fingers / singing my life with his words” with the same painful pleasure Roberta Flack sings about.

And so it is a great irony, and a great blessing, that while I was trying so hard to be anyone but myself, the band I was most drawn to sang song after song about being true and authentic. That’s the story here; it wasn’t so much the specific job or the specific company, but what I felt I had to sacrifice to succeed there. With each repeated listen, the words broke further and further into me, riding on those instruments, sounds, and harmonies that felt like home, convicting me to pay attention. My life was moving past me, and I needed to take control.

Decide what to be and go be it
-“Head Full of Doubt/Road full of Promise”

By 2010, I was a convert. I listened to The Avett Brothers almost exclusively, devouring every piece of music I could find that they had made. My vacations were built around seeing them live, and more than a couple of friends’ eyes glazed over in boredom as I droned on about how great they were. Of course, it’s only from this vantage point that I can even understand why they had dug so deeply into me. If money and possessions and arbitrary success had been my sirens, The Avett Brothers were the tolling bell for a safely lit passage off of the dangerous path I was barreling down.

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame
-“Ill With Want”

The frustrating dilemma I found myself in wasn’t that I was greedy or materialistic in the way I had always imagined greedy, materialistic people to be. I wasn’t miserly or superficial. But I was using the money I earned and the things it afforded me as a band-aid for the deep wounds I inflicted on myself by being untrue to the calling of my life. I saw it in the boxes shipped to me after bouts of online shopping. I saw it in the bags of stuff bought on stressed out lunch breaks that sat by the door for months. I heard it when I excused my constant anxiety and exhaustion, my lack of presence in my loved ones’ lives, and my inability to not check my Blackberry every two minutes, by believing the lie I told myself: “Well, I make decent money so it’s worth it.”

And while I wasn’t raised with those beliefs, and while friends and family who have long known me tried to nudge me into making a change, nothing really sunk in because I had set my determination on this job and wrapped up within it all my self-worth. I had to unravel it myself, which is why these songs were so important. Unlike friendly advice, they floated around me day in, day out, my brain doing most of the work with the words. I embedded them, interpreted them, and began to hear them as personal convictions, wrapped around the familiar twangs and instruments of my childhood.

Head down don’t you make a sound
Keep your plans all to yourself
They’ll come true they follow you
They’re what you’re obligated to
Don’t you listen to nobody else

In the rearview mirror, I see it clearly now. They are nice to listen to. They are fun to see live. They have songs that make you dance. They have songs that make you sing along quietly. But a lot of bands have that; why did I fall so deeply in love with The Avett Brothers? It’s because they also come with a message, and I’m sure they write it for themselves, for the people in their lives, but I know that by the laws of art, that ancient belief that what we create makes the path for the person who consumes it, they wrote that message for me. I heard in their songs both accusation and encouragement, and that easily made their message mine.

And I would give up everything
And if you were to come up clean
And see you shine so bright in a world of woe
And they may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth then we will go
-“Salvation Song”

Back in my car, when I found myself needing the courage to take the steps I needed in my life, and “A Gift for Melody Anne” came ringing out, everything became clear. Whatever my life was becoming, I just didn’t want it anymore.

Without hesitation, I can say the last year and a half since I took that leap of faith have been the best times of my life. But they also haven’t been easy. I have to constantly redefine success for myself. I struggle with self-doubt, and I worry about money and live with a lot less than I did for a few years. I don’t have a standard answer for “What do you do?” when I meet someone new, and admittedly, I sometimes find myself feeling inferior to and jealous of people on standard career tracks. I am still trying to figure out how to explain to people that I write, hack a design education, hack a programming education, design websites, freelance everything, and just throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks – there’s just no word for that!

Nothing gonna change my mind
I’m walking a different highway
Nothing gonna change my mind
I’m traveling a different line, oh
Nothing gonna change my mind
You’ll find what you need if you want it
Nothing gonna change my mind
I’ll find mine
-“Nothing Short of Thankful”

However, it has been worth all of the discomfort and more. I know that in the scheme of world trials, lost purpose can seem insignificant, but the truth is when we aren’t where we should be, we contribute nothing to those who do truly suffer or even to those around us. Simply, I was just a worse person then than I am now. Most importantly, I am a better wife, daughter, and friend. The thing I still take from The Avett Brothers is how quickly our time slips by us, and how much liberty we can have when we set ourselves on a path of giving ourselves, loving, and following our dreams. It’s a lesson I hope I never lose sight of again, but with any luck, their music will always remind me.

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone
– “Ill With Want”