Candles burned softly in Mason jars, occupying the centers of tables where middle-aged patrons of High Point’s Centennial Arts Center sipped wine from stemmed glasses and murmured quietly before the show on Dec. 15.
After a short introduction, Jim Avett rose from the wings of the audience.
He ambled up to the short, skirted stage, dressed simply in a hunter-green flannel shirt, burnt-orange leather vest, brown dungarees and brown work boots. He plucked his brownish-gray fedora off the headstock of the acoustic guitar standing onstage — a Martin signature model made to his son Seth’s specifications — and, placing it on his head to cover his shock of white hair and to shield his eyes from the spotlight, settled into his chair to play.
Most recognize Jim Avett’s sons before they’d recognize him. His family’s name precedes him, as the Avett Brothers represent North Carolina’s latest favorite natives in a long history of musicians hailing from the Old North State. And Jim happily referenced his famous sons.
But Jim, the patriarch, is his own breed of performer.
“About two months ago, Seth, Scott and I were sitting in the front room, and I said, ‘I play guitar to sing the songs people don’t hear,’” Jim Avett said in an interview. “Well, then Seth said, ‘No, you play guitar to tell people stories.’”
And he did tell stories — dozens of stories, rolling from the back of his mind to the tip of his tongue, forming long and winding segues between his numbers, medleys connecting medleys. Aside from those about his family, there were others he’d picked up sporadically in his 69 years of living.
“I knew a guy who’d lived through the Depression,” Avett said at the beginning of his set. “His daddy once fell out of a persimmon tree, broke his arm. People asked him, ‘What were you doin’ up in that persimmon tree?’ He said, ‘Getting breakfast.’”
A smattering of laughs.
“Y’all’re gonna be a tough crowd,” Avett chuckled to clearer appreciation.
Perhaps he’d misread his audience, because they couldn’t help but hang on his every word.
He paused and suddenly embarked on what would soon be understood as a characteristic tangent.
“I’ve been kicked outta two colleges — rightfully so,” Avett told the crowd. “I made a 9 once on a physics test. How do you score a 9 on a physics test and become anything?”
The crowd really started laughing then.
Avett practiced this Groucho-esque self-deprecation throughout his performance.
“I got my sense of humor from my uncles, my dad, my mother,” Avett said after the room cleared. “My relatives were very open people. If you don’t laugh at yourself, you don’t get to laugh at anybody. And I laugh at everybody.”
After a few minutes on stage, he proved he wasn’t just an amateur comedian.
He opened with John Denver’s “This Old Guitar,” fingerpicking and serenading in a weathered yet dulcet baritone voice.
“This old guitar taught me to sing a love song/ It showed me how to laugh and how to cry,” he sang, doing Denver justice.
Avett grew up around music. His mother was a concert pianist.
“She was the kind of person who’d be fixin’ supper, and I’d be playing violin in another room, and I’d hit a sour note, and she’d say, ‘You’re lookin’ for a B-flat,’” Avett said following the show.
He learned how to play guitar — after four years on piano and three on violin — when he was 13 years old. His father, a Methodist minister, bought him a guitar for $5.
“The guitar was completely perfect in my eyes,” Avett told his listeners. “It didn’t have a soundhole; it had two F-holes, like a fiddle, and cracks in the finish. It looked like it’d been painted with a pine limb and tar. But it was mine, so it was perfect.”
His older brother showed him how to play a simple, three-chord blues progression out of C, the same way many others begin their journey on the instrument.
“There are over 1,600 chords on this fretboard, and I knew three of ’em, and I was too young to be afraid,” Avett said.
Many of Avett’s songs were covers — classic country, gospel, Christmas tunes, some rock-and-roll and even Sam Cooke’s soul standard, “You Send Me.”
“That’s the one that got Susie,” Avett said, referring to his wife.
He made a quick point of delineating eras in music.
“[I’m playing] country music before 1980, when country music went… bad,” he said to laughs. “I’m not against new music — I’m against bad music.”
Between the jokes and the songs, Avett would philosophize on the state of modern life.
“Only 10 percent of the population supports creativity,” Avett estimated. “The rest of the people don’t care what’s playing in the elevator, in the grocery store. You gotta keep putting things in the pipeline or it all gets old.”
After his set concluded, couples fell upon him, gushing that he should write a book or record a CD of his philosophies.
Avett laughed off the idea.
“I don’t think I say much of anything worth remembering,” Avett told them.