Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thoughts on the new Avett Brothers song "The Once and Future Carpenter"

"'The Once and Future Carpenter' is a song that we've been working on for awhile, and we're very excited about it because we feel like we need to present a current example of where we are, who we are. It's not really acceptable to only present who we've been." -Seth Avett

I have to say that I wasn't sure what to expect when The Avett Brothers debuted their new song "The Once and Future Carpenter" on CMT a few months ago. After the stylistic changes they made on their last album, I and Love and You, and to a certain degree Emotionalism before that, there seemed many directions they could follow. Though I and Love and You certainly widened their fanbase, it also divided many Avett devotees who've followed the band from the beginning, and also those who discovered them with the release of Emotionalism and went back and bought their entire catalog. Too overproduced, too clean, too poppy, too much piano. I can empathize with those who feel this way, and there is a validity to their critiques.

But for as much as I love the banjo, and for as much as I love the raucous and raw energy of their live shows, with the Avetts it's always been about the songs for me. And Scott and Seth Avett, I believe, are two of the finest living songwriters making music today. After listening to I and Love and You many times over the last couple years, it's easy to see that great songs are still what drive this band, songs ripe with heart, authenticity, truth, and the ability to connect with people in ways that a good majority of songs are simply incapable of. I can say today without hesitation that I do indeed love I and Love and You. And "The Once and Future Carpenter" is not only a logical step forward, but one of the most well-written songs they have ever created.

The song starts off with Seth Avett picking his acoustic guitar while brother Scott comes singing lyrics to the beginning of a story about a rambler, a "poet young and hungry" who hits the road in search of a way of life that will satisfy his soul. Being a story song, it's a throwback to old country music in it's execution, and the Avetts revive that style with just enough modern sensibility to make it fresh again.

It's hard for me to describe how much these lyrics resonate with me because so many of their songs have, and strangely, with "Carpenter" it took a few listens for its resonance to shine through. Upon first listen, it's a deceptively simple and straightforward tune, but allow the song's earnestness and creative metaphors to sink in and a depth is revealed that is at once rewarding and inspiring. I could post the whole song as an example but that would be boring, so I'll just comment on a few favorite parts.

Though he "ain't from Texas," the carpenter/narrator departs Dallas at the beginning of the song, aware of the "lonesome sound" that's chasing him; then he states:

I ain't a gambler but I can recognize a hand
and when to hold when queens are staring back at me

God, I love this line. Two meanings strike me with the lyric, the first being that the carpenter knows when the right time is to take a chance, to leave his home and in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, "light out for the territory." He may not have been much of a risk taker in the past, but he can recognize when the time is right to break new ground. The second meaning emerged after a few listens and completely took me by surprise. At the root of the narrator's journey to find meaning in life is his quest for love. The "queens" are the women he meets on the road, women who offer hands of comfort to hold, some perhaps only for a night; but also that one woman who offers the possibility of love not only for the night but for life. A theme throughout much of the Avetts' music is that women can be baffling, but the love of a good woman and loving a good woman is unlike anything else in the world. (Not always smooth-sailing of course, but that's for another write-up!) It's that true, lasting love that's not easy to find; that lasting love that the carpenter is ultimately seeking, love that can drown out the "lonesome sound."

If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die

This simple statement comes at the end of a chorus that testifies to the ups and downs, the sacrifices and celebrations, that will always be a part of life. But the important thing is to be grateful for a new day, even a new moment. Trials and suffering in life are a sure thing, and once you surrender to that fact and try to live a life of simple gratitude, satisfaction comes in. You can never "suck out all the marrow of life," as Thoreau would say, if you're too worried about past or future failures, or if you're always looking for someone to blame for your troubles. The Avetts a mighty punch with such a simple statement.

And my life is but a coin, it's pulled from an empty pocket
It's dropped into a slot with dreams of sevens close behind
And these hopes and these fears go with it, and the moon and the sun go spinning
Like the numbers and fruits before our eyes

Has there ever been a verse that says more about the randomness of life than this? It's such a subtle and simple metaphor that I didn't get it at first. It builds upon the theme of the ways risk and chance play into the carpenter's life, and by extension the listener's. He's become a permanent traveler -- sometimes weary, sometimes lucky, always hoping and dreaming to find the things in this life that will bring him satisfaction and true joy. His life, though, will never be easy even when he does find those things. All he can do is live day by day because the world isn't stopping for him or anybody. The journey itself and the willingness to not give up is what will make him, and ultimately bring fulfillment, though the road will be covered with, perhaps in equal measure, many blessings and many disappointments. This is stated in the simple bridge of the song as Scott and Seth harmonize and the song gets a little louder and more defiant:

Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind

In the live version they did for CMT, Scott lets out an emphatic "Yea!" after they sing this line for the first time, testifying to its truth in the brothers' own lives and in the lives of those people whom their music speaks to so profoundly. It's a great musical moment.

Lastly, I want to mention something about the title of the song, "The Once and Future Carpenter." There are many ways I take its meaning. One is that the carpenter lives his life looking backward and forward, not with trembling worry or self-doubt, but almost with reverence; he looks back at his past to learn from it and realize that it made him who he is today, and looks to the future with all those things he's learned plus the hope of all he still could be. All he can do is try -- work hard and keep going. The second meaning is that maybe the road the once-carpenter-now-poet-young-and-hungry is on is one that will -- as so often happens, it seems -- take him back to where he started, somewhere he's laid down at least a few roots, whether that be Texas or his original home. Life sometimes has a way of leading us back to the places we know and are known best. So it would seem the narrator still has some work to do with his hands yet -- whether it be with a hammer or a pen.

But no matter where he finds himself, he will always be a traveler in this life. As will we all.

And here are the complete lyrics, just because I feel like typing them out:

I ain't from Texas but I made my way from Dallas
and I know the lonesome sound is following.
And I ain't a gambler but I can recognize a hand
and when to hold when queens are staring back at me.

Once I was a carpenter and man my hands were calloused,
I could swing a metal mallet sure and straight.
But I took to the highway, a poet young and hungry,
and I left the timbers rotting where they lay

Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
and when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky.
And when the black cloak/dress drags upon the ground,
I'll be ready to surrender and remember
We're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die

And I don't come from Detroit but her diesel motors pulled me
and I followed 'til I finally lost my way
Now I spend my days in search of a woman I call purpose
and if I ever pass back through her town I'd stay


My life is but a coin, it's pulled from an empty pocket,
it's dropped into a slot with dreams of sevens close behind
And these hopes and these fears go with it and the sun and the moon go spinning
Like the numbers and the fruits before our eyes

Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind
Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind


If this is the direction The Avett Brothers are heading, consider me along for the ride.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your take on this song! It's one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great article! I also love this song. The lyrics are so beautiful they make me want to cry. The melody, Scott's voice, Seth's beautiful's just perfection. Beauty. Truth. That's what it is.