The future of rock & roll looks a whole lot like the past. It’s wearing vintage suspenders and playing the banjo. It’s singing high-lonesome harmonies and rediscovering Woody Guthrie. And it was all over the Grammys this month, as some of the year’s biggest bands took the stage with old-timey instruments and formal attire straight out of There Will Be Blood. Before taking Album of the Year, the night’s top prize, for their Americana-fueled barn burner Babel, British folk-rockers Mumford & Sons showed off their fingerpicking and their fedoras, stomping their weathered boots to their floorboard-rattling anthem ”I Will Wait.” Denver indie band the Lumineers strummed their ubiquitous ”Ho Hey,” while their bow-tie-clad drummer kept time with a tambourine. After picking up their Best Country Album prize, Atlanta bluegrass lovers Zac Brown Band joined Elton John, Mumford, and more for an all-star Levon Helm tribute, performing the Band’s 1968 classic ”The Weight.” For one night, at least, Hollywood felt just about as down-home as the Midnight Ramble, Helm’s legendary Woodstock jam session.
Backstage after the show, sipping from a plastic cup, Marcus Mumford celebrated his win: ”It’s f—ing awesome!” he shouted. But he wasn’t quite ready to declare a victory for folk rock just yet. ”I think it’s always been around,” he told EW. ”And you guys” — meaning Americans — ”did a good job of inventing it. The media likes to focus on things at certain times, and that’s good for us. That means we get to play lots of shows.”
That’s an understatement. Before the Grammys even aired, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers had spent a combined 63 weeks on the Billboard 200. Babel debuted at No. 1 this past September with 600,000 copies — the biggest first-week sales for a rock band since 2008. The Lumineers’ self-titled debut climbed to No. 2, its highest spot yet, the week before the ceremony, more than 10 months after its release; both bands also saw significant post-telecast bumps in singles and album sales.
They’re hardly alone. Acoustic guitars, mandolins, and glockenspiels have slowly been taking over the charts and the radio. Last summer, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips had the most popular coronation song ever with the strummily anthemic ”Home,” a sharp departure from the show’s typical pop offerings. ”A lot of people think that ‘Home’ sounds like a Mumford & Sons record,” says Gary Trust, Billboard’s associate director of charts and radio. ”So you’ve got another really mainstream outlet” — television — ”bringing folk to the forefront.”
In these platinum acts’ wake, lesser-known bands like Icelandic troubadours Of Monsters and Men, Seattle folk-poppers the Head and the Heart, and Brooklyn country-rock trio the Lone Bellow continue to rise. They’re not just on the radio, either. ABC’s Nashville regularly features music by rootsy artists including John Paul White (of Grammy-winning duo the Civil Wars) and Kacey Musgraves, and sets scenes in legendary local venue the Bluebird Cafe. And later this year, the Coen brothers will release Inside Llewyn Davis, their valentine to the 1960s folk scene in New York City, starring singer-actor Oscar Isaac in the title role.
Granted, most pop stars have a certain retro appeal these days. Artists such as Adele and Bruno Mars bridge the gap between young crate-diggers and their parents, who never actually stopped playing vinyl records. Acts like Jack White and the Black Keys, who’ve helped revive back-to-basics rock & roll, have also enjoyed a recent surge of Grammy recognition. Speaking to EW before the ceremony, White acknowledged the move toward all things rustic in popular music: ”I don’t know why people seem to be suddenly responding to that genre, but it’s really beautiful that people are paying attention to bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. Too many genres like jazz and blues don’t get enough attention, so it’s nice now that folk rock is. Maybe it’s cyclical.”
Folk does seem to work its way back onto the radio every 10 years or so. Many of the groups that are popular today probably grew up listening to the turn-of-the-21st-century soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which introduced a young audience to American roots music. But there’s also something about this new wave that distinguishes it from Gen X’s coffeehouse strumming or baby boomers’ protest music. The We’re not selling out! purism of the past is gone, as bands happily license their songs to be used in TV shows and Bing commercials. The music is less politically engaged, but more community-minded. (Quick: Which member of Of Monsters and Men is the leader? Trick question — they all are.) It’s more willing to embrace spirituality, with live shows that bring crowds together with all the lift-ev’ry-voice-and-sing fervor of a tent-revival gathering. And it reflects the larger migration toward pared-down lifestyles that started around the 2008 recession and now extends to everything from homemade fashion to artisanal food.
”These are times that were made for fires to be lit and people to gather,” says Jay ”Ketch” Secor, singer and multi-instrumentalist for the Nashville string band Old Crow Medicine Show. ”That’s what sells pickles at $7 a jar. It’s this motto: Let’s live simply. And that’s what this kind of music is, too.”