Tag Archives: Mumford and Sons

Confession

I have a confession to make.

Every time I hear someone bring up Mumford and Sons as a bluegrass band, I cringe.

I know, I know. I’m judgmental, and narrow minded, and old fashioned, but I do have my reasons!

Before I make any more enemies, I’d like to give you a little bit more background about my relationship with their music. In all honesty, I’ve never seriously listened to much of it. What little I was exposed to entered my life right around the time I decided to boycott my local radio station for betraying their roots and overplaying the top 40. (I’m looking at you, Little Lion Man.)

(As a side note, how many bluegrass bands can you name that swear in their lyrics?)

^No, actually, I don’t this is bluegrass.^

I want to be clear: I don’t dislike their music. I find their style, their lyrics, and their energy not only inspiring, but also incredibly fun.

But that’s not enough to make it Bluegrass. Not by a long shot.

Personal tastes aside, I’d like to try and break down some of the key characteristics that separate Mumford and Sons from what I would consider bluegrass.

The big one, of course, is instrumentation. Though Mumford and Sons spotlight the banjo (it’s part of their sound most praised by pop audiences) and feature many of the same instruments associated with bluegrass (Banjo, Guitar, Upright Bass, etc.) the use of these instruments is distinctly different from bluegrass. The biggest difference is the substitution of drums for mandolin to keep time and play rhythm, but the use of horns and piano (which create a free, joyful sound that somehow always reminds me of the music-under-the-sky sound of Edward Sharp) helps create further distinction.

mumford and sons
I’m sorry, did you drop something?  A MANDOLIN perhaps?
(Photo by Larry Busacca)

Though I don’t want to get into the electric/acoustic debate, and I don’t typically put much value on the distinction myself, their latest release doesn’t exactly help their case.

^I really miss that mandolin, but the drums create a whole new kind of sound.^

The second distinction I’d like to make involves repertoire and song content. The typical bluegrass repertoire features a mix of original music and genre standards. Though I’ve never seen Mumford and Sons live, I have never found any performances of theirs that feature genre standards, suggesting the group doesn’t go out of their way to establish themselves in the lineage that many groups make it a point to be part of.

^So maybe this is more of an old time standard, but hey, OCMS is more of an old time band!^

The content and structure of their music further separates them from the norm, with many of their songs featuring a more complicated structure than is typically found in roots music. The group makes little attempt to emulate the typical content (where are the trains, mountains, and Uncle Penn?) of bluegrass and old time songs, but their stage presence and marketing certainly suggests a link to such a sound.

^Got to love this song and video, though. Note the bluegrass link through Helms and others.^

Though I have a hard time classifying their sound as bluegrass (and I don’t think they consider themselves bluegrass, either), the members of Mumford and Sons have just as much right to embrace the bluegrass community as anyone. They even came into the music in what many would call a “traditional way,” learning from the popular musicians of their generation. Emmylou Harris, among others, had a big part to play in the group’s history:

“Harris, 65, was among the gateway artists who helped Mumford and bandmates Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Winston Marshall discover their love for American roots music. It started with the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack…That eventually led them to the Old Crow Medicine Show and then deep immersion in old-timey sounds from America’s long-neglected past”

(USA Today).

 

Which leads me to my final thought.

Musicians can play across genre. Albums can play across genre. Even individual songs can play across genre. So maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t really matter how we classify Mumford and Sons?

^Have I mentioned how much I love these guys yet?^

 

Take, for instance, Mumford and Sons performance of Where Is My Heart?, from the Telluride Bluegrass festival, an excellent example of the bluegrass genre, down to the comic elements (and notice how much that mandolin stands out!). Take a listen and tell me you can’t see why songs like Where Is My Heart are clearly bluegrass while songs like The Cave really aren’t.

^ This is bluegrass.^

 

^This isn’t bluegrass. I’m sorry.^

Two songs, two distinct styles, one artist.

I think Chris Thile has it right: genres are made for hopping.


Special thanks to my dear friend Tacy for inspiring this post!

The Punch Brothers

Is it Bluegrass?

This week, I was confronted with a pretty simple question.

 

“Is this bluegrass?”

 

John Lawless, editor of the popular site Bluegrass Today, asked us this question, before admitting to registering it as a domain name for a future humor site poking fun at the question and the people who spend their time online asking it.

 

“If Flatt and Scruggs are up there on the stage playing, and Earl breaks a string, is it still bluegrass?”

 

Jokes aside, the question of a standard bluegrass definition is one I have been asking myself since day one. There are the undeniably classic bluegrass artists, the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but what about The Country Gentleman, members of the prestigious Bluegrass Hall of fame, who pushed the boundaries of the bluegrass repertoire since at least 1963? If they’re out, there is no hope for the Avett Brothers.

 

Some judge by instrumentation, vocal range, lyrical content, and even geographic origins. Others will argue the historical angle, claiming even Monroe wasn’t playing bluegrass until Earl Scruggs and his iconic style appeared on the scene in 1945. We all know how Monroe felt about that…

While we’ve talked about the usefulness of definitions before , I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated by the constant attempts to unify the sound. Online, heated debate runs rampant. Surely no other musical community has faced such a crisis!

(Note to self: A link between the early online bluegrass community and the modern flame war? Potential Thesis?)

The point I want to make here is that for some this does matter. A lot.

As mentioned before, the power to define is the power to decide who’s in and who’s out of the club. The desire for acceptance is part of human nature, and the approval of the older generation can make or break a musician’s career. But for up and coming musicians, bluegrass might not be the most profitable club to join.

 

“If they’ve never heard you, do you want them to think you are a bluegrass band?”

 

In Chris Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto, he explains why the Infamous Stringdusters made the choice to distance themselves from the bluegrass label.

 

“Not if you want to portray the image of a rising act capable of playing huge rooms to huge crowds, because right now that’s just not what bluegrass is, not what it wants to be.”

 

He’s got a point.

Bluegrass has traditionally found itself more at home in smaller venues, perhaps owing to it’s roots in the living rooms of people across the country via radio. And while it is totally valid to point out the first bluegrass band was a tightly run, commercial machine right from the start, the modern scene hasn’t exactly been quick to embrace that.

Perhaps the folk movement’s role in bluegrass resurgence has something to do with that. Is the modern bluegrass scene the result of the “long hairs” hijacking the music of the “short hairs” in the 60’s and 70’s?

(Drive out to Floyd county in July for a visit to Floydfest to see what I mean.)

Pandolfi reminds us of this odd imbalance in his piece:

 

“Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound. But the bluegrass world is tough, and there’s just no solid mutual respect. Unfortunately, bluegrass needs these bands… way more than they need bluegrass.”

 

Which is exactly why this debate matters for the genre. It’s an ideological war to define the past for control of the future of bluegrass.

If the community decides to accept the likes of the genre-bending Punch Brothers or (heaven forbid) Railroad Earth with their flashy lights and area-rock stages, will it spell the end of the genre as we know it? Or, like Pandolfi suggests, will it usher in a new era of bluegrass where

“This amazing, deeply historical music could really get its due, and we would all have something to celebrate together.”

 

I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure.