The following was originally posted on my Huffington Post blog here.
Dolph Ramseur isn’t the most likely person to manage The Avett Brothers.
Ramseur had no musical background — other than being an appreciative listener — when he started Ramseur Records in Concord, North Carolina. In fact, until July 2000 his instrument of choice was a tennis racquet.
“I taught tennis at country clubs including Forsyth Country Club, and I was the tennis director for Hanes Park in Winston-Salem from 1993-95,” he said. “But I was always fascinated by music. I don’t play, I’m just a really big fan.”
So how does a country club tennis pro learn to promote musicians? Ramseur says he had some of the best teachers in his backyard, namely NASCAR, the National Wrestling Alliance and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and WBTV.
“Growing up in the Piedmont, we’re the hub of NASCAR, and I remember going to the Charlotte Speedway to watch the World 600, and before the race they would have people jump over 30 schools buses while they were on fire. Humpy Wheeler promoted NASCAR in the 70s and the 80s like it was the greatest show on earth. He was pure genius and a big influence on me. NASCAR has that piss and vinegar about it, and they promoted the hell out of those shows. Just by being around it and watching it was a big eye-opener as a kid. I learned a lot.”
He learned even more about promoting events from Jim Crockett Promotions, direct forerunner to World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and pro wrestlers like Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair.
But it was WBTV that sparked Ramseur’s initial interest in music. “Arthur Smith had a TV show — he wrote Duelin’ Banjos — that would come on WBTV and he had world-class musicians on. Growing up in North Carolina, if you walk out your front porch or back porch, you’re going to run into someone who plays piano at church or plays banjo, guitar or fiddle. It’s sort of ingrained in North Carolina.”
Ramseur and the Avetts are natives of Concord, but they went to different schools and ran in different circles. “Early on, my mother saw an article about them in the local Concord paper, so I went to see them play and I remember writing to Scott Avett in 2002.”
The Avetts joined Ramseur Records, started touring regionally and put out an album in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Ramseur decided to employ some things he learned from Wheeler and Crockett and apply it to The Avett Brothers first New Year’s Eve show at the 1,000-seat Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte.
Just as there is no “typical” NASCAR fan today, there is no typical music fan. That makes promoting a unique act like The Avett Brothers, whose music defies genres, even more of a challenge, Ramseur says.
“Humpy made you not want to miss a race because it was an event,” Ramseur explained. “I said let’s make a big spectacle of the NYE show. I went to the school of hard knocks with no training. In some ways it was good because I didn’t have any bad habits. I also didn’t know I couldn’t do it. Sometimes when you don’t have a safety net, you can make a lot happen.”
Indeed. This New Year’s Eve The Avett Brothers are hosting their 10th-anniversary show in the Greensboro Coliseum, along with some 10,000 of their closest friends and fans.
To promote the 2005 NYE show, Ramseur got the Avetts spots playing on the local TV morning news shows and radio stations. “I definitely had to work it, they weren’t a known commodity by any means. I have the gift of gab, developed when I started teaching tennis at 16, and it helped me get the brothers foot in the door.”
Ramseur recalls going to the local SunDrop soda plant and buying 10-foot-wide vinyl banners for $5 — with the soda logo in the corners that Seth Avett would then stencil with show information. “We would put up seven or eight in Cabarrus County. One time I put one up in Harrisburg and a guy called me and said come get this sign. I said I would get it if he would come to the show,” Ramseur said and chuckled. “There was a local Pizza Hut and we would put fliers promoting the show on each pizza because we knew the owner. It was a grassroots effort.”
It’s an effort that has paid off. “I never really looked at it like we’re in the music business. We’re in The Avett Brothers business. We were self-sufficient and doing OK before we signed with producer Rick Rubin.”
Rubin’s involvement led to the Avetts’ first gold record, “I and Love and You,” in 2009. They put out six albums on Ramseur Records before signing with Rubin. The Avett Brothers are releasing their fourth live album on Friday, Dec. 18, and a new record release is planned for early 2016.
“Live, Vol. Four” was recorded during last year’s New Year’s Eve concert at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. Of Live, Vol. Four, Seth Avett says on the band’s website, “The energy of this show is undeniably positive and uniquely North Carolinian…I often had to remind myself that we were singing to the audience and not the other way around…there’s nothing like celebrating in an arena filled with friends and neighbors.”
“Live, Vol. Four” includes two brand new songs by The Avett Brothers — “Satan Pulls The Strings” and “Rejects in the Attic.”
“I work closely on the records and with the live shows and with promoters making sure the word is out and about for every performance. Not much has changed, maybe the social media dynamic that has been added, but it’s still getting the word out about The Avett Brothers.”
And while The Avett Brothers have had only minor radio success, they make up for it in fan loyalty. “When we get fans, we get fans for life,” Ramseur said.
Case in point: Tanya Marsh recently drove from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Knoxville, Tennessee, to take her 10-year-old son to the Avetts’ annual Legendary Giveback concert. “This was Riley’s fifth Avett concert,” she explained, “and his first time anywhere near the stage. The band and their energy was fantastic. He’ll never forget that experience.” She added her son was even more thrilled when he walked away from the show with a kazoo, a copy of the set list and a pair of drum sticks. “Joe and Mike went out of their way to make the concert special for him. They are are such great guys.”
Ramseur says the Avetts are sort of seen as underdogs in the music world. “That’s not a bad thing,” he said. “The Avett Brothers share a lot of layers with other musicians and yet they are unique. I feel like it’s American music. I really wish Johnny Cash could have seen the Avetts. When I think of Johnny Cash, I think of American music because he was rock and he was country, he was all of those things. I think the brothers are making real honest music.”
In addition to the Avetts, Ramseur manages Bombadil, Samantha Crain, David Childers, The Last Bison and Liz Vice. Among the label’s dozen artists is Jim Avett, father of The Avett Brothers.
Despite The Avett Brothers’ growing following, Ramseur says in a lot of ways he’s still doing the same thing today as when he first started representing the Avetts.
“I take the brothers and try to get them in front of as many people as I can. I want everyone on the planet to hear The Avett Brothers. Their songs and performances are so special. I also feel like the guys are still getting better at their craft. I think one thing that benefitted me is I could see their potential. I feel like the brothers have grown so much; there’s a desire in them to be the best they can be.
“Whoever is buying a ticket, they want to give that person a performance they will never forget. The brothers are so great. They are hard working and won’t make anyone on their staff do anything they wouldn’t do. We all came from blue-collar families and nothing is beneath us. I am honored to work with them. It’s not really a job. I love music and I love the music the Avetts make.”
And so do fans like Marsh, who explains why she is a member of the 5,000 and growing Avett Nation, originally a fan club organized by Ramseur Records to promote The Avetts:
“It is hard for me to explain why I love a particular artist. A few times in my life I’ve found a work of art that instantly and profoundly speaks to me. I remember feeling that the day I first heard ‘I and Love and You.’ It spoke to me so clearly that I can describe to you today all of the details of that moment, even though it was more than five years ago. I could give you really granular examples of why their songs and lyrics are technically excellent, but to me it’s the connection that matters. When I’m at a concert and they start playing the first notes of ‘November Blue’ or ‘My Last Song to Jenny,’ I get goosebumps. That’s just magic.”