Marcus Mumford is animated, affable and downright jovial on the phone — a far cry from the snarl and ire of Mumford & Sons hit songs like “Roll Away Your Stone” and “Little Lion Man.” The lead singer and songwriter escaped the heat of the recording studio (the band is at work on a sophomore full-length which I’ve been directed not to ask about, though it’s obvious that Mumford is excited about the project) to speak to Xpress from the air conditioning of his car. It’s likely, considering how much time the U.K.-based band spends on the road, that Mumford feels most at home with wheels beneath him.
“We’ve spent as much of the time, as a band, away from home as at home. We’ve toured very hard in this first five years,” he says. It’s been a struggle to learn to balance touring (which he loves) with having a personal life and “time to write music and record music.” Then again, the group has gone far on its full-length debut, Sigh No More, which was released in 2010 in the U.S.
Evidence of Mumford & Sons’ success was a 2011 European Border Breakers Award for artists reaching audiences outside of their home country. Mumford says it wasn’t a goal to build an international fan base, but “it was important to us to recognize it when it was there” by going to the places that support them.
New Zealand tops that list, but first there’s the Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers, a series of shows, according to GentlemenOfTheRoad.com, “at handpicked locations around the world. Each Stopover is a day-long event, celebrating the music, food and people of the places we're visiting.” Earlier dates were in the U.K. and Ireland, followed this August by four U.S. dates including Bristol, Tenn.
So, why Bristol? “We thought it was just f—king awesome that it was a town that was in two states,” says Mumford. Bristol (population about 27,000), straddles the Tennessee and Virginia border, making a twin city.
And, for Mumford & Sons, the fact that Bristol birthed country music (showcasing the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family; so recognized by Congress in ’98) “certainly is an appealing factor,” says Mumford. For the Stopovers, the band took inspiration from traveling Victorian circuses and American Wild West shows — the later in line with the band’s rootsy, folky string instrument sound.
Mumford was born in California and has dual citizenship (though his accent is all Brit), but attributes the band’s Americana influence to banjo and Dobro player Winston Marshall, who “doesn’t have dual citizenship and he was the one who introduced the other guys to bluegrass.”
Somewhat ironically, “We spent most of our first album denying the fact that we’re part of some New Yorky-ish folk scene in London,” says Mumford.
One piece of Americana that the band has adopted from touring is an appreciation for smaller towns — like Bristol, which “we’d heard was a really fun place to go,” says Mumford. During Mumford & Son’s last American tour, they made the drive to the Virginia/Tennessee border city, where they were encouraged by locals and festival promoters.
“It’s a town that a lot of bands don’t pass through,” says Mumford. But, “we have learned in America, more so than in the U.K., people are willing to travel to get to a show.” That, and the band likes touring in different ways. They were inspired by the hard-to-get-to Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which rewards those who make the trek with “a wonderful local community,” says Mumford.
The Bristol show (like the other Stopover concerts) includes a mini-festival lineup consisting of a mix of U.K. and American bands. Dawes (Americana from L.A.), JEFF The Brotherhood (rock duo from Nashville), The Very Best (global pop from Malawi and London), Apache Relay (Americana from Nashville), Simone Felice (singer-songwriter from New York), Justin Townes Earl (Americana from Nashville) and Haim (nu-folk sister trio from L.A.) are on the Bristol bill, with local entertainment to be added.
“What we really want to do is, in the evenings, embrace local traditions,” says Mumford. How that will pan out is currently in the planning process, but Mumford waxes enthusiastic: “We want to embrace local business, local culture and local music — we’re very excited about that.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Mumford & Sons with Dawes, JEFF The Brotherhood, The Very Best, Apache Relay, Simone Felice and Haim.
what: Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers
where: Bristol, Tenn. and Va.
when: Saturday, Aug. 1 (tickets are $69 with no additional service fees at http://gentlemenoftheroad.com)