With the boost of Rubin’s American Recordings label — then riding the success of its series of Johnny Cash albums of the same name — I and Love and You vaulted the Avett Brothers to the forefront of indie music, reaching #16 on the U.S. Billboard 200 (far ahead of the group’s previous effort, Emotionalism, which crested at #134). It would have been easy to label the group an overnight success.
But that’s not how bassist Bob Crawford remembers it. “Our success wasn’t sudden by any means,” he says, speaking over the phone ahead of the band’s performance this weekend at SlossFest. “It was steady growth. We’d play shows with audiences of 100 people, then 200 and so on. It’s been a gradual journey over 14 or 15 years.”
Crawford’s surname isn’t Avett, obviously, but he’s been an Avett Brother since he joined the group in 2001. The 45-year-old appeared on the group’s first full-length album Country Was later that year, and, along with Scott and Seth Avett (the eponymous siblings), he’s been the only constant member of the group from that point on. (Cellist Joe Kwon joined the group with 2007’s Emotionalism.)
Crawford’s route to joining the Avett Brothers was a circuitous one, he says. After spending years working as a freelance film and video producer, Crawford moved to Rock Hill, S.C. at age 29 to refocus his life on music.
“I was thinking about my longterm future,” he says. “I had always loved music and played in bands, and I wanted to get a solid background. It felt like, if I was teaching music theory for the rest of my life to high school or college people, I’d be fulfilled, rather than grinding it out in the film business — which is an amazing business, but it’s feast or famine. At that time, I didn’t see a lot of happy people.”
Crawford enrolled at Winthrop University, where he decided to major in jazz guitar in music theory. “I had just begun playing the upright bass,” he says. “Actually, ironically, I had bought a vintage guitar at a shop in Concord, N.C. — which unbeknownst to me was Scott and Seth’s hometown. That was their hometown music store, and it was the place that they would go a lot. Our paths kind of near-missed.”
More near-misses followed — though Crawford describes them as proof that “synergy was happening” between the future bandmates. One of Crawford’s co-workers at a local Applebee’s in Concord — “where Scott and Seth probably went to get a beer every now and then,” Crawford muses — invited him to see Seth’s high school band Margo. Crawford made plans to go, but decided against it at the last minute.
When their paths finally did cross — the Avetts, impressed with Crawford’s work with bands such as the Memphis Quick 50 and Blue Green Gauge, auditioned Crawford with a jam session in the parking lot of a Media Play store — the band’s slow path to success began.
It was five albums later, with 2007’s Emotionalism, that the band reached a turning point. “Most people consider I and Love and You to be our turning point, and maybe it was, commercially,” Crawford says. “But I’ve always felt that our artistic turning point came with Emotionalism. That was the one that got us noticed by Rick.”
Rubin’s presence on subsequent Avett Brothers records has been a large one. For The Carpenter, released in 2012, Rubin helped the band find the underlying concept — death — of the album’s 12 tracks.
“It was all about sequencing,” Crawford says. “After we’d recorded the songs, we started looking at ways to put them together, and saw the narrative and concept of The Carpenter forming.” The remaining songs from the recording sessions were combined into Magpie and the Dandelion, a decidedly less somber affair that saw the band exploring a feeling of “youthful wonder,” as well as their most polished sound to date.
The departure from the rougher, rawer sound that defined the band’s earlier career might have been Rubin’s doing, but Crawford says it’s the sound the band has been trying to reach for years.
“If we could have done it for Country Was, or A Carolina Jubilee or Mignonette, we would have!” Crawford laughs, referring to the group’s first three albums. “I mean, we recorded Emotionalism in three weeks and mastered it in just under a month.” The shinier production, he says, “is a product of just having more time.”
The Avett Brothers are taking their time with their next record. The band have been recording their ninth album since May 2014, but Crawford says it won’t be released until “sometime in 2016.”
The new album, he says, is a “departure from The Carpenter and Magpie.” Judging from Crawford’s description of recording sessions — the band are working with a greater number of musicians than ever before, and recording most of the album live, he says — the album will feature the group’s most expansive sound to date.
The band’s success seems to be a fulfillment of the aspirations Crawford had when he joined the Avett Brothers almost 15 years ago. “Part of my goal when I went back to school was to make my living playing music while I was working my way through school,” he says. “I was playing in four bands at that point, playing at this Chinese restaurant here, this bar on a Wednesday night there.
“I thought that if I just followed my bliss and focused my life on music, regardless of anything else I would probably find greater satisfaction and well-being long-term.”
The Avett Brothers will perform at SlossFest’s Blast Stage on Sunday, July 19 from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.