Mumford & Sons

Rebecca Miller
by Matt Hendrickson - October/November 2012

With rising acclaim and a sophomore album, England’s Mumford & Sons channel Dixie roots

In the years since the 2010 U.S. release of their smash debut, Sigh No More, England’s Mumford & Sons have had plenty of surreal moments. But none tops backing up Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammys (along with the Avett Brothers, in one of those crazy Grammys-only medleys). “Here is possibly the greatest artist of all time, and he’s being backed by some twenty-something boozers from England,” says Mumford banjo and Dobro player “Country” Winston Marshall with a laugh. “He didn’t say much, just told us to keep stomping. Between us and the Avetts, we probably put a bunch of holes in the floor.”

But while Dylan may have been the marquee name of the bunch, it was Mumford’s performance of their song “The Cave” that had people buzzing afterward, propelling the band from playing clubs to playing to thousands of fans this year, including curating its own one-day Gentlemen of the Road festivals, which sold out instantly. To cap it off, the group’s brand-new second album, Babel, has been one of the year’s most anticipated releases. Not bad for a bunch of twenty-something boozers. “It’s annoying to be told how great you are,” says Marshall, tongue firmly in cheek. “I feel like Forrest Gump a lot of the time. We’re faking it until we get caught. It’s really weird.”

To the band’s credit, Mumford & Sons have toured tirelessly in the United States, happening to ride the wave of mainstream music’s rediscovery of traditional instruments such as the banjo. They have a knack for writing songs that are intensely personal and specific yet have a feeling of instantly recognizable vulnerability, carrying themes of love, loss, religion, and regret. New songs like “Whispers in the Dark” and “Babel” are rich with biblical imagery—lead singer Marcus Mumford’s parents are leaders of one of England’s biggest evangelical groups—but still sound like beer-soaked bar sing-alongs. “I do think there’s something universal about our songs that touches people,” Marshall says. “We’ve really gelled as a band and worked really hard, but there is something. How else can you explain it?”

Growing up, Marshall—the son of an investment banker—got into music when he found a vinyl copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres in his mother’s collection. The Texas boogie classic inspired him to grow a beard, wear cowboy boots to private school, and form a ZZ Top cover band (Gobblers Knob). The band played about four gigs before Marshall picked up the banjo, thinking he could never be good enough at guitar. “I can play a banjo badly in England and get away with it,” he says, laughing. He met Mumford, multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett, and bassist Ted Dwane when he started hosting a country music night at a London pub, and they bonded over their love for traditional sounds. “In England as a kid, you listen to three bands: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin,” Marshall says. “Maybe the Kinks as well. But all of those bands have a sound rooted in traditional music of the U.S. Then the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Alison Krauss were huge for us.”

Of all the band members, Marshall has been especially eager to soak up the South, spending months at a time in Nashville and hanging out with friends in Old Crow and in Nashville new-grass sensation Apache Relay. “The South is a lot like Ireland,” he says. “I have no family, no connections at all. But within a week you meet everyone’s relatives. That never happens in England. Some of my best friends are here, and I’ve never met their families.”

Tags: Music, Listen