NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When things were at their worst, music was a refuge for Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford.
Crawford has spent much of the last year caring for his daughter, Hallie, who is fighting brain cancer at the ever-so-tender age of 2. He was off the road and away from his band, traveling to and from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., from their home in North Carolina.
Between the scans and the doctor's evaluations and the omnipresent worry, Crawford would sometimes slip away for a few minutes and pick up a fiddle.
"Just spending a half hour in a little room messing around on that thing (has) been some of my most relaxing moments over the past year," Crawford said. "This whole affair has kind of put music back where it needs to be in my life and my heart."
Hallie has improved enough for Crawford to rejoin the North Carolina roots rockers as they releases their new album, "The Carpenter," and launch a fall tour. His daughter still has a long way to go, but she's doing well enough that he feels comfortable leaving her.
On the day of his interview, he had just wrapped up a wagon ride down the road with his daughter. Precious time.
"It is always a great thing. Always," Crawford said in a phone interview. "I tell you, you love your kids immediately as soon as they're born and you can't imagine a greater love than what you share for them. Then something happens or someone gets seriously ill, it heightens all the emotions and the joys get more joyful and the fears and sadness are even more stressful. You definitely appreciate every single day and every single moment."
The Rick Rubin-produced "The Carpenter" examines that full spectrum of emotions. Already known as a band with its heart on its sleeve – the group's breakthrough albums were titled "Emotionalism" and "I And Love And You," after all – they dig deeper than ever on an album that's at turns somber, achingly beautiful and fully aware of the perils of life.
Rubin thinks the trio, who rose to a new level of prominence after appearing with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons on the 2011 Grammy Awards, has learned to cut to the bone with its songwriting.
"Sometimes it's with sadness but sometimes it's with beauty, but either way it feels like you're getting in to see somebody in an intimate, vulnerable moment," Rubin said. "We don't often see people exposed in that way. So it feels special to me because it feels like we are getting closer and closer to who these people are, and they're really beautiful people and we get to really get in there with them. And it's heavy."
Seth and Scott Avett didn't set out to write a heavy record. In fact, there are moments of humor and joy among the album's 12 tracks. But they are overshadowed by dark sentiments, reflecting how the songwriters are growing up and encountering the full range of what life has to offer even as they reach new highs in record sales, ticket sales and celebrity visibility.
Much of the recording was complete before Hallie took ill in August 2011. As the group began mixing the album later, they realized they'd essentially forecast the emotions they'd be going through over the next six months as they supported the Crawfords.
"I don't claim that there was any kind of foresight to it," Seth Avett said. "But some of this lyrically that I even wrote makes more sense to me now because of that situation. And it will definitely inform us more on future work because it's changed. This has changed our lives, changed our work."
The band was returning from Europe when Hallie had a seizure. Crawford was on a plane and didn't find out about the event until he landed.
From that point on The Avett Brothers went into family mode. Either Scott, 36, or Seth, 32, touring member Joe Kwon, manager Dolph Ramseur or tour manager Dane Honeycutt were at the hospital with 41-year-old Crawford and his family at all times, until the start of their fall tour last year.
The situation proved that though his last name is not Avett, Crawford will always be a brother.
"We probably never would have toured ever and we wouldn't be talking right now if Bob hadn't stepped into the picture," Seth Avett said. "He booked the first tour, he got us on our feet and out of our local world and pushed us to get out there. ... We sort of became brothers through that same baptism by fire – the three of us getting together in a little van or pickup truck with a camper on the back and go out and conquer that kind of thing gets a person really close to his comrades."
And Crawford can't wait to cram himself into a bus again: "Just the idea of playing music is so soothing and relaxing and kind of puts it where it needs to be," he said.