Heard on the Hill

Talk This Way

Avett Brothers bassist, academic explore politics, history in new podcast

Former House GOP leadership aide Doug Heye, left, chats with Bob Crawford, right, and Benjamin Sawyer for their new podcast, The Road to Now. (Courtesy Crackerfarm)

Some people might be satisfied to share the stage with the folk-rocking Avett Brothers from night to night.  

Bassist Bob Crawford has other aspirations. He wants to become a rock star among political podcasters.  

Crawford is hoping to realize that lifelong dream with help from friend and scholar Benjamin Sawyer, his partner in a new discussion series, “The Road to Now .”  

The aspiring broadcasters knocked out their first three shows in just 10 days.  

But it’s taken them nearly a decade to get their act together.  

The unlikely duo met through mutual friends. Sawyer went to high school with Crawford’s band mates (he performs with The Avett Brothers ), so they would occasionally see each other around.  

Over time, they came to realize that they had something special in common.  

“We would get into these amazing history discussions,” Crawford said.  

Sawyer, a lecturer of history at Middle Tennessee State University, recalls getting into thought-provoking conversations with Crawford that often spilled over into email threads.  

Or, they’d pick up the phone to discuss an interesting book, news articles that needed dissecting and talk show appearances worth breaking down.  

Crawford’s media dietLeft, Right & CenterMeet the PressWith All Due RespectDoris Kearns GoodwinCharles KrauthammerJon Meacham While watching Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough talk up the Founding Fathers in 2004 on a public affairs show, Crawford said he had a startling revelation.  

“We seemed like we had lost our way,” he asserted, reflecting on the divisiveness stirred up by the second war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the bitterly partisan Bush-Kerry presidential contest.  

He decided to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the state of the union dating from 1776 until today.  

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Rolling across the country in the band’s tour bus provided ample time (sometimes up to 10 hours of downtime per day, he calculated) to devour wonkish tomes about America then, now and even future.  

That is, until his 22-month-old daughter got diagnosed with cancer. (Crawford penned an op-ed about pediatric cancer research last fall.)  

“I didn’t care about history for a while,” he said of the obvious shift in priorities.  

Once his little girl recovered (she’s doing better but continues getting checkups), Crawford reconnected with Sawyer and lobbied hard for following through on their burning desire to make complicated issues relatable.  

Middle Tennessee State University lecturer Benjamin Sawyer, left, and Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford have history together. (Courtesy Crackerfarm)
Middle Tennessee State University lecturer Benjamin Sawyer, left, and Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford have history together. (Courtesy Crackerfarm)

“Our angle is we just want to answer questions,” Sawyer said. In his mind the point of the podcast is to explore “how personal narrative and historical narrative intersect and diverge.”  

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A self-proclaimed devotee of National Public Radio’s Terry Gross , Sawyer said his goal for the show is to talk to as many genuinely interesting people as possible.  

Sawyer’s favorite podcastsFreakonomics (“That was a huge influence for me,” Sawyer said of the mind-bending show.) • NerdistPlanet MoneyWTF with Marc Maron The short list of prospective guests includes politicians, entertainers and academics — or, as Crawford put it, “anybody that can help us draw those all-important lines from the past to the present.”  

In their debut outing, Crawford and Sawyer try to wrap their minds around “new populism.”  

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Crawford attributes the breakout performances by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders to the meteoric rise of social media and plummeting faith in traditional institutions such as political parties, the church and financial providers.  

Crawford and Sawyer roped in a few ringers for other episodes. They huddle with former House Republican leadership aide Doug Heye during episode two and talk shop with Bloomberg Politics players Matthew Negrin and Alex Trowbridge in episode three.  

“We’re having so much fun,” Crawford said. “It reminds me of being a young musician and starting a new band.”  

Crawford fantasizes about turning on inquisitive types from all walks of life.  

“I want to find ways to explain the Kansas-Nebraska Act to a 22-year-old who probably doesn’t find it all that exciting,” he said, referring to the slavery-expanding law that was the impetus for the modern Republican Party.  

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The first batch of shows was released May 20. (A corresponding Twitter account has also been activated).  

The two plan to record more episodes whenever they can get together. Solo shows are also a possibility.    

Crawford said he and Sawyer are trying to stay flexible about future releases.  

“We may be like Netflix,” he quipped, citing the binge-friendly model adopted by the streaming video provider as one option.  

In the meantime, Crawford is gung-ho about letting the world know that “history’s happening right now.”  

“It’s not just in a book. It’s something that we’re a part of,” he said.  

Contact Rojas at warrenrojas@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.