Though not all band members are related, folk rock outfit the Avett Brothers does contain a pair of biological brethren — Seth and Scott. The two started playing music together in the late '90s, and in early 2000, released their first EP. As for the current lineup, bassist Bob Crawford joined them in early 2001 and cellist Joe Kwon came on board in 2007. Since that turn of the century, the band has been busy showing off their blend of folk, bluegrass, and Americana via nearly 10 full-length recordings, a handful of EPs, four live albums, and a whole lotta touring. The prolific output has mirrored the band's rise in the Americana world – few artists have matched both the steady production and steadily growing ticket sales the group has been fortunate enough to see during its career. We caught up with Crawford prior to the band's appearance at McDowell Mountain Music Festival, and we spoke about his history with the band, his guitar-playing aspirations, and his young daughter's battle with cancer.
How did you get started playing with the Avett Brothers?
In 2001, I was going to college in South Carolina and studying jazz guitar. I’d also started playing some upright bass. There was a guy in my program who was working with Scott Avett, he mentioned to me that they were looking for a bass player. I got in touch with them and set up an audition. We met up in the parking lot of this retail chain store that sold books and music; this was in March of 2001. I rolled up in my Toyota pickup truck with my upright bass and they showed up in Scott’s Ford wagon. We played some tunes right there in the parking lot and that was kind of it.
Cool that it just clicked. As a guitarist first, did you ever have an intention or desire to play bass? What made you get involved with that instrument?
No. Completely not. I bought a bass on a whim. I was in a music store returning a guitar. I got store credit for it and there happened to be an upright bass there for sale, so I used the credit and bought it. I’d play it with friends on the weekends and then started spending more time with it. I took some lessons at school. I became a brand new bass player, which ended up making me become not such a great jazz guitar major (laughs).
Do you play guitar in other projects?
I do. My daughter had a brain tumor, and I do a lot of work with St. Jude’s Research Hospital, trying to raise money. I did a songwriters’ event in Seattle last weekend for that and played a few songs on guitar. While I was practicing for that, I started playing some jazz guitar, revisiting a bit where I left off. Maybe now I’ll start playing more often.
Can you share some of your daughter’s story?
Certainly. In 2011, at 22 months old, she was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. After getting some second opinions, we stayed with St. Jude’s. She underwent a year of chemotherapy. She came home, and then five months later – this was 2013 – the cancer returned. She had another surgery and six weeks of radiation. Since then, she’s doing good, we’re coming up on three years with no cancer. She gets MRIs every few months. There is a possibility the tumor could come back, but right now there’s no evidence of it and no cancer.
How is she doing currently?
She lost the right side of her brain. She doesn’t walk or use her left arm, and has developmental disabilities. With all of that, she is doing amazing. She is 6 now and continues to make great progress and is currently in kindergarten.
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That is wonderful. And you’re continuing to help St. Jude’s and like charities fund their research?
There is no way I could do anything else.
Did you have a particular affinity for jazz growing up? Is that what led you to choose that as your major in college?
I always just had an affinity for good music. Whether it was Miles Davis or bluegrass or the Ramones, or Husker Du, I just loved authentic music. I love music that you can just tell is real and sincere.
There seem to be two camps when it comes to how bands feel about playing music festivals. Some love it and some feel like it’s not as fun as playing to their own specific audience. Where do you stand?
I’m on the side that thinks the festival energy is great. The crowds are always excited and energetic. You don’t do a sound check; you just get up and play. Anything that can go wrong, will, you know? It’s a lot of fun.