Just in time for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, I caught up with Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers, to talk about their new album “The Carpenter”, their first Grammy nomination, songwriting, and learning to play the fiddle, among other things:
EOAF: Congratulations on the success of “The Carpenter”. How would you describe the album?
Crawford: Mature, thoughtful, intentional, poignant, pensive. I think it’s heavy, and I think that’s where…I’ve had friends that I have had since I was 19, I’m 40 now. I’ve had them say “I don’t know about this one. It’s not your best.” I think maybe we lose some people as we go, but maybe we gain people in some ways. Maybe people come and go. It’s not 2007 anymore, and it’s not 2005. It’s a different time for us and I think you are being honest about where you are in life and that being reflected in your art and what you do and the way you do it. It’s definitely going to change.
EOAF: How do you feel about how songs from “The Carpenter” have translated live?
Crawford: Oh they are great! I think they have really translated. You know what they have done? Some of them, like “A Father’s First Spring” and “February 7”, some of these song help us slow down on stage and try to meditate on being intense and calm at the same time. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s really fun to translate something like that live. We’ve had slow songs in the past–God knows we have tons of them. There’s a controlled, an intentional controlled aspect that comes musically, like a hang-there-in-space-and-time and have that patience. I’ve always thought Neil Young did that so well with songs like “Harvest Moon”–how he could have a very intense mid-tempo. That’s tricky for a musician. It’s very hard. The inclination is to play faster, because your heart is beating faster because you are on a stage and there are people.
EOAF: Is there any song from The Carpenter that you really love to play live?
Crawford: “Live and Die” is getting really comfortable. It’s starting to feel like an old trusty. We are getting better, with the last two albums, at holding songs back before the release. We were never good at that before. We’ve gotten better at that. When you record the song, but you don’t really know them, you know your part and you know the section that you did a million times, but you don’t know it like when you are on stage and let it fall out of you. When you record the record, there’s about a year before you really start playing the songs intently and constantly, and then they take on a life of their own. So, they are coming. Some of them are still in the coming phase, but some of them have been very surprising to play, like “Life” has been fun to play and “Paul Newman [vs. the Demons]” has been fun to play. That can be really fun to play.
EOAF: You played “Life” for the first time live at The Christmas Jam in Asheville. That was exciting to see you guys added last minute to the line-up. How was that experience for you?
Crawford: It was fun! Scott [Avett] and I used to live in Asheville, and I remember a time when the Christmas Jam came around. For a couple of years we were asked to participate, but we do our New Year’s show in Asheville. So it was finally good that this year we could be a part of it. It was really great, because we hadn’t played together in about a month and a half. I mean we had practiced, but we hadn’t done a show. It was fun because I was actually really nervous, but we did great. I was like, “This is great I am nervous! This is awesome.”
EOAF: That is a great feeling, and it was also a very different crowd. The majority of the people there were sort of that jam-band crowd.
Crawford: Yeah! It was nice to get that support. I could also tell from the stage that [the audience was] really there to see String Cheese [Incident]. That made if fun. It was nice to be in a room that we’ve sold out, and played two nights there before, and for it to be a new room—for the lighting to be different and for there to be no backdrop behind us.
EOAF: “The Carpenter” was nominated for the Best Americana Album award for this year’s Grammy’s. Congratulations! Where were you when you found out?
Crawford: Thank you so much. I was at home in bed. I started getting texts saying “Congratulations” and this and that.
EOAF: How does the Grammy nomination play into your or The Avett Brothers’ definition of success?
Crawford: I think it’s always nice to be patted on the back, or nice to have someone tell you good job. Let’s face it. It’s great to get a compliment. I mean, it’s always nice, but I don’t think it’s why we do it, and it’s not even necessary for us to continue doing it—to get those kind of accolades. We’re going to keep doing what we do probably until it doesn’t seem useful anymore, until there’s no need to write songs, until we feel like we’ve plateaued, or we feel like we have nothing to say, or until people stop coming to see us live. But I think the first thing, besides a tragedy, that would hasten us not doing it would be if we had nothing to say. We always told ourselves earlier that we would stop doing it if it seemed like we plateaued—if it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere any longer, you know. I don’t know that we are there yet. I think we hope to do it forever. Maybe there are years to take off, or we can take a break, but I hope it can still exist in the same light.
EOAF: It is great that you guys have been getting recognized more for what you are doing. In that notoriety you have been asked to play with some pretty big names over the past two years—Bob Dylan, you’ve played for Tom T. Hall, and you did the Crossroads sessions with Randy Travis. Is there anything from those specific experiences that really stands out to you?
Crawford: Well they are all really touching and exciting. Obviously the Bob Dylan thing is surreal. It’s even surreal now because it doesn’t even feel like it really happened. You know? It’s one of those things. “Did that really happen?” It was really exciting to work with Randy Travis. He was great, I mean really awesome. He was great to be around and a really nice guy. I think we really blended well together. I think it’s a nice match and definitely a connection there. They are all really great, but we have to keep in mind that to share the stage with somebody or to collaborate isn’t the main thing. To be able to do these things is great, and we should be thankful for them, enjoy them and savor the moment, but it’s not the main thing. Take it as it comes, but we have that thing that we do and that needs to come first and foremost.
EOAF: Did you grown up in NJ?
Crawford: I did, I grew up in South Jersey.
EOAF: So is it safe to assume that you didn’t grow up listening to people like Doc Watson and Tom T. Hall?
Crawford: Yes, I started listening to Doc Watson in 1992. A friend of mine drove me down to MerelFest. Actually, the first time I saw Doc was at the Cowtown Bluegrass Festival with that same friend who told me about MerleFest. Then I saw Doc I saw at The Bottom Line in New York City before I moved down here. I remember the first time I saw him my friend was like, “That’s a legend. You got to see a legend”. I didn’t even know who he was at the time. I was fortunate enough to see him many, many times after that. We opened up for him one time and of course we played MerleFest all those years, and the last time I saw him was when we played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. He was out there and he was playing with David Holt, and we watched him from the side of the stage. I’ll never forget it. It was a very sad day when he passed–very, very sad day.
EOAF: You have recently added the mandolin and fiddle to your contributions to the band. How did that come about?
It came about because Scott and Seth [Avett] are very open to and very supportive of things that I try to do. The fiddle has been the most recent, and I seem to be getting some traction with it. Beginning to play something at the age of 40, you know, I wish I’d been playing all of these instruments when I was 15 or 16 years old, but that wasn’t the case. But the fiddle has been a real mental savior the past couple of years for me, and I feel myself growing in it in a lot of ways. Scott and I–before my daughter got sick–we started playing old-time music like Tommy Jarrell and Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, and Uncle Dave Macon–just old-time music and we would just kind of go do our thing. Doc Watson when he was very young with Clarence Ashley, that’s a really good album if people can find that—really, really good. Doc was very, very young. It’s awesome. Anyway, we’d just be backstage and play these old-time tunes and try to learn them. They were just claw hammer banjo and fiddle tunes. It just kind of grew out of that. We still do it. When my daughter got sick, he’d come visit me at the hospital, and we would play. It’s kind of our thing. Hopefully someday…well maybe even not…maybe it doesn’t have to be something that we do for people. Maybe it’s actually something that we can do for us, but it’s been a lot of fun.
EOAF: The cool thing about when you get in the spotlight on stage, is that everyone just goes crazy. I think it stems from the fact that the spotlight is always on Scott and Seth so much, but the fact is that you are the third brother. When you sing your songs or do your upright bass spin [the crowd goes wild]. By the way how many revolutions can you get on that thing when you spin it around?
Crawford: (Laughs) Well like I always say, any monkey can spin a bass, and someday I am going to teach one to do it just to prove my point. But I love this job I have and the guys I travel with and play with. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, and I am so thankful for that. I just want to enjoy my remaining years, as many as they may be, just playing music and loving music and learning songs. I have just been fortunate with life.
EOAFr: Have you done any songwriting recently for yourself or your side projects?
Crawford: Not since my daughter got sick. David Childers and I did another Overmountain Man record, which will be out January 22 (“The Next Best Thing”, Ramseur Records). It was recorded before Hallie (Crawford’s daughter) got sick, and I’ve got several songs that are on that [album]. The fiddle was kind of that thing that I did when things got out of the critical phase and I had time to tinker, you know like 45 minutes a day, or a half hour a day in the hospital. I just kind of tinkered on the fiddle and tried to get to know that more. I feel myself closer to writing now. I write down little things here and there. I think at some point, there was a time after Hallie got sick, I thought, “I’m living it, I don’t have to write about it,” you know? Life is so intense I don’t have too much time for that. I think the big thing that we’ve been though–my family and people who have been through far different and far worse things—in some ways sometimes I think there are far worse things that you can go through as horrible as what we have gone through. You kind of get the feeling, and not in a bad way, that no one can really understand what you are going through or what you feel, like your friends and family members. You kind of just feel like, man, you kind of feel frustrated and angry. You don’t want anyone to go through what you are going through. You certainly wouldn’t even want your worst enemy to go through what you are going through, so you feel like no one really understands what you are going through. The idea of writing about it—if someone can’t truly understand or empathize, for good reason–what would be the point? Other than journaling, which I have done intentionally, how would it come out and what would you say? I think it’s just a matter of getting my head to the right place to write about it. I think I am going to write at some point, I just don’t know what or when.
EOAF: In terms of your daughter, the entire Avett Nation community has been hopefully uplifting for you and your family. Since then—and probably before then–a lot of the fans have gotten together around Avett Brother shows, and organized community events or fundraisers. How does that make you feel, and what part do you think you guys play in that?
Crawford: I don’t know what part we play in it. We do what we can, and we do as much as we can. I know we all have charities that we support and try to do all we can for. I am really glad people do it. Any kind of service, I’m glad people do it. I’d like to dedicate my life more to service. Any time you can serve someone else, it’s probably the greatest thing you can do as a human being. When I think about God and practicing your faith, I think that service to others is probably number one to what we can all do as human beings. I don’t think I’ve served anyone as well as I think that my wife and I and our family has been served during our time. We’ve been served amazingly by so many, so many friends and family members, and of course the Avett family and the Avett community has served us as well. I think that is something that I always keep my mind present to—ways to serve. I just think service is one of the most important things that we can all be doing. Look at the world and the country and people’s attitudes, people being divided along political lines—I think if people just focused on serving each other and serving someone other than themselves, a lot of these compromises we need would be evident.
EOAF: You guys used to play at Peasants here in Greenville, right?
Crawford: Yes, we did.
EOAF: Did you know they are reopening?
Crawford: No, but I am glad to hear that.
EOAF: There is a push to get music back in Eastern NC, so if you all are ever back in this neck of the woods, even if any of your side projects want to come through here, I know the town would be very happy to have you.
Crawford: Thank you!
EOAF: By all accounts you were pretty instrumental in pushing the [Avetts] out of their comfort zones and having them go on tour in the beginning. There are obviously tons of young singer/songwriters and bands in the Eastern NC area trying to make it, for example, Nick and The Babes is just one of them. What would be your advice to a young band or singer/songwriter out of this area who really wants to get noticed?
You mentioned Nick. He and I are friends and have worked together a little bit. I definitely think that people should take notice to them. I think that the advice is to get out of the area. Spend as much time as possible on the road and just travel around and around and around and around and just try to share what you do with the country. There really is no easy way. I can only say this because this is what we did, and this is what works for us. There are probably other ways to do it but I don’t know those ways. I haven’t experienced that. I know there is a ton of talent out there, and I wish this was a time in my life when I could go out and see more of it. I know there are a lot of really great musicians and there is plenty to be taking notice of. I hope they will have the presence of mind to reach outside of their comfort zone and listen to some other music.