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.
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”
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!