More than a decade before Dolph Ramseur helped guide The Avett Brothers to a major label and late-night television appearances, he was a small-town tennis coach. Ramseur taught tennis in four states and for 10 years, a span of time and space that afforded him a broad spectrum of students. He remembers promising preteen prodigies and an elderly man who would swing his racket only to lose his shorts. On the courts, Ramseur learned to recognize talent and enthusiasm and, perhaps most important, how to distinguish between the two.
"If I had a kid that was 10 years old that came to me and he didn't have really good strokes but he had great hand-eye coordination and he was a helluva athlete, I could see the potential," says Ramseur. He now runs a successful record label and manages, among others, The Avetts and The Carolina Chocolate Drops, two of the country's biggest roots music acts. He doesn't coach tennis anymore, but he still likes to talk about it. "Give that little kid a year, and he's going to be one helluva tennis player."
About six years ago, Ramseur found one of those kids with potential onstage at the Great Hall, a wide and wood-floored auditorium in the student union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To be more exact, he found four of them—Bryan Rahija, Stuart Robinson, Daniel Michalak and his younger brother, John. They called themselves Bombadil.
It was the second Thursday of December 2005, a few days before students faced the drudgery of semester-ending exams. The room was full of a few hundred undergraduates looking for one more ecstatic exhortation before all-night study sessions. For all their ramshackle sprees of bluegrass and punk rock, The Avett Brothers—sweaty, sloppy and fun—made apt headliners for those bound to be cloistered.
Theoretically, Bombadil was the perfect opening act: Three Duke students and one from UNC interested in various folk forms and pop melodies, attuned to rock 'n' roll energy and down-home charm, Bombadil's members shouted as much as they sang and pounded their instruments as much as played them. Their music posed a series of urgent questions: What would happen next? What influence would they incorporate? Where would this song end? Would they even get through this song? Coltish and proud, they were ideal Avett understudies with a lot of learning left to do. They were talented and enthusiastic, just not simultaneously, and they were perfect for Ramseur.
"It was very much like The Avett Brothers when I saw them the first time. It was all the members walking this tightrope—falling to pieces, but not falling off," Ramseur reminisces.
Ramseur had fallen in love with Bombadil when he heard two songs on their MySpace page a few days before they opened for The Avetts. When he saw them onstage, he knew that they not only had the tunes but also the charisma and willingness to work for this career choice. They became Ramseur's new squad of unruly tennis players. He offered to release their records through his label, which was already spreading the Avett gospel, and to serve as their de facto coach. For the next four years, he helped guide them through every aspect of being a young band—how to promote shows, when to tour, when to record, where to record and how to release what they'd made.
"I don't work with bands because they're exactly right. I want them to grow and get better," Ramseur remembers. "Bombadil wanted to get better: 'Hey, what can we do? Did you see anything tonight we could've done different?'"
Ramseur's earnest, endearing, one-fan-at-a-time approach had worked for The Avetts. In 2008, it was beginning to deliver for Bombadil. The five sincere, simple songs on their debut EP had blossomed into A Buzz, A Buzz, a rich, ambitious but still unbridled mix of winsome folk songs and loud rock numbers, stacked harmonies and plaintive singing. The band found a booking agent and bigger crowds, selling out rooms at home, in Washington, D.C., and in Portland, Ore. Some of the country's better music festivals inquired about Bombadil, and one of indie rock's most noted producers agreed to record their second album at his studio in western North Carolina.
Rahija co-founded Bombadil in 2004, while he and Daniel Michalak were exchange students in Bolivia. Back in Durham, they'd been in a cover band together, but their foreign rendezvous was serendipity. He'd been there from the beginning, and he could feel the momentum building. "We were finally scratching at the surface of the music that we wanted to make and thought that we could make," he says. "It was getting to a point where you could see some kind of sustainable path."
That path abruptly and unexpectedly forked in late January 2009. For more than two weeks, they'd been recording their best batch of songs yet with Scott Solter, the veteran producer who had made big records with The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent and John Vanderslice.
Solter seemed to capture the members' very essence on tape. They alternately sounded curious, quixotic, anxious, funny and sentimental. "Marriage" was a perfectly rendered observation of matrimony as a marathon, while "Otto the Bear" was a celebration of sound and spirit. The grand "So Many Ways to Die" did sweeping, charging acoustic melodrama better than The Avetts themselves ever had, while "25 Daniels" successfully stretched and stacked a simple pop hook into a sound collage, like Steve Reich rearranging Sufjan Stevens. It was the album that should have made Bombadil famous.
But on the night Bombadil began mixing the record with Solter, Stuart Robinson said he wanted out of the band. A master of hooks and a powerful entertainer, he had joined the band by email while Michalak and Rahija were in Bolivia. He had a girlfriend, though, and an economics degree from Duke, not to mention interests in computer science and medicine. He'd slept on enough floors and played enough empty bars.
What's more, he reasoned, Bombadil didn't need him: Everyone in this band wrote, arranged and sang, so with some reconfiguration, they would surely survive as a trio. They'd have one less mouth to feed and pocket to pad. He might've been right, too, except there was another reason Robinson was leaving: For the better part of the last three years, Robinson had watched Daniel Michalak slowly lose the use of his hands. He'd seen Michalak try everything—splints, ice packs, specialized stretches—to quell the pain that shot through his forearms and into his hands and sometimes his legs. He'd been diagnosed with neural tension, meaning all of his activities were exerting pressure on and shortening some of the nerves that radiated through his body. But nothing fixed it. Michalak gradually started giving up his responsibilities. He'd end rehearsals early and practice less. At shows, he wouldn't move equipment. He stopped driving the tour van. The band even rearranged a few songs so he didn't have to play so much. Robinson didn't want this band to waste his health, too.
Three months after Robinson left, the reconfigured Bombadil trio was eating before a show in Florida. Michalak couldn't feed himself. "I said, 'It's not worth it,'" Michalak remembers. "And that was it."
Bombadil released Tarpits and Canyonlands three months later with a listening party in Durham. The album played over the PA, and the band milled about but didn't perform. They had made one of the year's most eclectic and ambitious albums, a bold statement of runaway talent finally finding its own path. Without a tour, though, they knew Ramseur's one-fan-at-a-time philosophy would never work. There was little promotional budget, and there were no definite plans to record again. Tarpits and Canyonlands was stillborn.
"It was a really bad time for me," says Ramseur. His voice carries a recognizable mixture of empathy and guilt, like the sports coach who's worried he's pushed an athlete too far. "I'd led them down this path of making art, performing art, and they'd spent four or five years doing this. And now we didn't have anything to show for it because they can't perform."
At least that's what they thought.