The Catalyst interview: Avett Brother Bob Crawford
North Carolina’s Seth and Scott Avett have been at or very near the top rung of Americana music for two decades. They are genre-defying multi-instrumentalists who raised the bar for acoustic music with chill-inducing harmony vocals, country-flavored rock ‘n’ roll and every variation of the above, known and unknown. Great singers, great songwriters.
By the siblings’ side since the earliest days has been Bob Crawford, from New Jersey, who plays upright and electric bass, and violin, and sings. Then there’s cellist Joe Kwon, born in South Korea and brought up not far from the brothers Avett in the Carolinas.
This band, collectively known as the Avett Brothers, co-headlines Sunday at the Innings Festival on the Raymond James Stadium grounds in Tampa.
There are other musicians in the touring ensemble, but these four – Scott, Seth, Bob and Joe – are the core. They are the Avett Brothers.
We raised Bob Crawford on the phone this week to talk about the music, and the band – along with his passion for history, and his now 13-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011.
St. Pete Catalyst: I have to start by asking you – how’s Hallie?
Bob Crawford: Thank you for asking! I’m actually on my way to pick her up from school. She is doing well. Her cancer came back in September of 2020; she had a seven-year remission. We were all kind of shocked by that, that it came back, but it was 2020 and that’s what 2020 was all about, seems like. She had a tough year, recovering from surgery … she didn’t eat for a long time. Anyway, she’s doing much better now. We were at St. Jude a couple weeks ago, and she had a good checkup. Every three months we go back.
Tell me about your history podcast, The Road to Now, and your fascination with history.
We’ve been doing it since 2016, and we’re on Sirius XM now, on the weekends. And I have a podcast series coming out April 13 with IHeart and Curiosity Stream. It’s a series about John Quincy Adams.
Where did the history thing come from? I’ve always had it inside of me, from a very early age. My mother would take me to these local historic sites. And I had a history teacher in seventh grade who would say “Does anyone besides Bob know the answer to —?”
That wasn’t who I was academically. I was a solid C student. But I was very focused on history. When we started the band, I was really getting into it, reading a lot of history books on the road.
Does being in this band open doors? By saying “I’m in the Avett Brothers,” do you get better tables at restaurants?
The Avett Brothers, we’re the kind of operation that … I feel like we’re still under the radar? Twenty-one years we’re under the radar! People that know me, know me, right? I’m Bob. But that’s the exception, that’s not the norm. And I’m the bass player, and I look like Average Guy. I’m not as distinctive as Joe Kwon. Scott and Seth are more high-profile. But it’s just enough for me. It allows me to do the history stuff.
Sadly, my wife and I don’t go out to eat, we’re just swamped at home, but there are times where it helps, I guess, in some ways.
Like they give you good deals in the record store?
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to a record store! I’ll tell you where it helps – it opens doors, right? It probably helped with Sirius XM. I did a documentary series called Concerts of Change last year, which was about the history of benefit concerts. We interviewed Bono and Bob Geldof and Steve Van Zandt. And it helped me get them on the show.
I finished my Masters in History in 2020; when Hallie was going through radiation I was writing my final thesis. So I feel like I got the goods, I’ve earned the goods to back it up. I’m not just a novelty, but I think to some people I am. Some people will say “He’s a rock musician … who also likes history.”
Hopefully people listen to what I’m doing and say “Wow, there’s real substance here.” Look, people don’t have the time to read history books, or maybe they don’t have the interest. Or they don’t understand, “an obscure president from the early 19th century, how do I feel his impact today?” And hopefully because I am the bass player from the Avett Brothers, they may take a minute and listen to something I’m producing and they might be like, “Wow, I had no idea.”
Longevity. After 21 years, aside from the fact that there are more people on the stage now, what’s changed for you?
Hey, we get to play with Willie Nelson – we’re gonna do the Outlaw Festival with him and some other great bands this summer. And we’ve done this for like seven years. And when you sit on the side of the stage, and you’re watching Willie play, at 90 years old, with guys he’s been playing with for half a century … it’s what you want, right? You just want longevity.
And I think with longevity, the rapport that you have with one another being onstage for 20 years, hopefully that brings a maturity to the performance – an assuredness and a calmness to what you’re doing onstage.
And I don’t mean calm meaning like “don’t rock out,” I mean calm like “we got nothing to prove.” Like, we got nothing to prove. The brass ring is us being up there. Twenty years IS the achievement. That’s the brass ring. We have to enjoy this because 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, there’s an end to it at some point.
But is there still more?
I think there’s a chance. Maybe. There’s always that chance. But there was a time, when we were running through a lot of hoops, and we weren’t saying “no” to anything. Ever. And now we say “no” a good bit – because you got people who have kids playing soccer through the fall, and you’ve got kids who have special needs. This is the Season of Life, and it’s fleeting with kids, right?
When you play these big outdoor festivals, any level of intimacy, to me, is impossible. How do you connect with people on that enormous, Live Aid kind of scale?
I think the music IS how we connect. With the intimacy of the music, and really, the personal connection that people have to the music. Every day, we get an email forwarded from someone who has a loved one that’s sick, or has been through some tragic event. And who says “your music is playing a role, in some way, in this moment in our lives.”
So I think when you’re up there night after night, 5,000 people, sometimes 60,000 people … I don’t know what they’re expecting. I can’t speak to that.
But whatever that is, there are going to be people out there that, 20 years in, have been with you for a while. And they’re there to see you because you mean something to them. That’s beyond you, right? It’s beyond us, onstage. We’re the vessels for it.
Like whatever connects people to a song, be it an Avett Brothers song or anybody’s song, it’s touching something that’s unspoken, and it’s deep, and it’s the great universal human language. And we are blessed to be able to be up there and tap into it.
You’re in the band, but you’re not an Avett. So how come it’s not the Avett Brothers Band?
(laughing) My guess would be … it would come down to … Scott and Seth are meticulous about art and presentation. It’s got something to do with that. “The Avett Brothers” is all-encompassing. Me, speaking for me, I feel covered by that. I feel represented.