The Problem with Mumford & Sons (or, Congrats, Banjo, You Made It)
I clearly remember having lunch one day in 2004 or 2005 with my good friend and my advisor, both of them in their late-40s, with (or getting) PhDs in music, former musicians; the things that qualify someone as a “music expert”. Conversations with them could be intimidating, but also really fun. On this particular day, though, I was not about to back down. “The banjo is the next big thing,” I declared. I was starting to see the banjo everywhere. “I bet it will even appear in rap music in the next decade.”
They looked at me like I was crazy. No way, was their response. The banjo is just too country.
Now, these two were fully aware – if not partially responsible for making others aware – of the African-American influence in early country music. But at the time, they couldn’t foresee the way banjo might take over.
A year after that lunch, I bought my live-in boyfriend a banjo for our anniversary. He took to it right away, and still plays.
Five years after that, I married a different guy, who had played the Japanese version of the banjo for 20 years. At home, he made what I called baby Japanese banjos (their real name is kankara) out of a neck, a coffee can, and three strings. Then he’d play the blues on them. His best friend – a travelling one-man band – would stop by and describe his own plight in learning the banjo, then in integrating it with the rest of his set-up.
I’m not sure what conditions made this happen, but the banjo is everywhere. Many cite the O Brother soundtrack as the beginning of the trend, alongside its responsibility for generating a new roots craze that has spanned the last decade. Great times for roots music, maybe not-so-great times if you liked roots prior to 2002 and the mainstreamization of it has been a bit painful for you.
A while back, I was at a friend’s house for dinner and the Mumford & Sons album was playing. They were all talking about how great it was, but I couldn’t quite understand the fuss. Another friend said to me, “You just don’t get it. There’s just something so…exciting. This music – it’s raw, it’s real.”
No, I get it. I get it in the same way I get why I was jumping up and down at Great Big Sea concerts when I was 20, but I can’t really stand to put them on now. I cut him some slack, because he’s a hip hop aficionado, and whenever I try to say something like, isn’t Public Enemy a-MAzing? he just nods with a mix of amusement and resignation. Any entry into a new genre requires going down the most accessible road first. It’s the same reason tourists stumble off the subway and take 500 pictures of the billboards (these are advertisements, people) at Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto before they go shopping at the Eaton Centre, and why they don’t saunter off to Leslieville or Bloor West Village first.
It follows, then, that young people hearing Mumford & Sons for the first time hear it as exciting music that somehow didn’t require a drum set, vocoder, or Jay-Z production. This is mind-blowing to them. Add to that the fact that they didn’t have to search for it; it’s available on Top 40 radio, and the thrill of something different doesn’t initially come across as alien because it was handed over. Easy. New thing to like! Sort of like falafels…you can get one on any corner.
Really, this is The Eagles all over again. The poor, much-maligned group took everything that was happening around them – The Flying Burrito Brothers, CSNY, The Byrds – and made it smoother, more radio-friendly, more exciting, about more digestible subjects. And all the country-rock fans got mad, because who was this group deigning to get their songs on the charts? (I know, I know, CSNY was on the charts…you get what I’m saying.) Then they got big record contracts, became part of the 1970s stadium rock scene, and then, to make it all worse, reunited in an apparent bid for millions more in the 90s, making Hell Freezes Over one of the more painful memories of summer trips to visit family friends in Vancouver for teenagers.
…Anyway. I actually quite like The Eagles, in small doses. Certainly, the songs are good compositions and they collectively embody some of the greatest talent America had to offer in the latter half of the 20th Century. The same thing happened, though, in Toronto in the 80s. The Queen West scene was pretty happenin’, with all sorts of country-rock artists like Handsome Ned, or the Cowboy Junkies, or Sam Larkin keeping things going, and then Blue Rodeo came along with a good-looking, silky-voiced front man, and suddenly that scene’s edge was lost as radio was dominated by BR’s ballads. I know this is, again, oversimplification, but when you talk to former members of that scene, the end of the 80s produced a very real sense of loss as the scene faded away.
I’m in no position to predict what will happen to Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers, or any of those groups, because I’ve never really listened to them, but I suspect the same thing is going on here. New, polished roots music for a new generation. As with previous incarnations of this phenomenon, a certain percentage of those new fans will say, “hey, who is that old dude that played with them on the Grammys?” and a still smaller percentage of those fans might wonder who the heck is Woody in “Song for Woody”, and maybe that teeny group will restore roots back to some kind of underground scene in the next few years, making the long-term fans of the genre breathe a sigh of relief. And then it will begin again.