God, Beer & Banjos: Mumford & Sons Take America

Riding along with the year's biggest new band as it crashes a picking party, dodges the authorities, meets a Golden God and works on a hangover with Ed Helms

Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons performs during the 2011 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 11th, 2011 in Manchester, Tennessee.
Erika Goldring/Getty
August 4, 2011

Mumford & Sons are four nice British boys from well-to-do homes, who dress like railroad engineers and sing four-part bluegrass harmonies. So why are they on a street corner at midnight, face to face with the San Miguel County Sheriffs Office?

"Is that a beer?" a deputy asks, eyeing the bottle in keyboardist Ben Lovett's hand. Lovett, a 24-year-old Welshman with a face to take home to Mom, admits that it is. The officer frowns. "You know it's a $100 fine for open containers." Bassist Ted Dwane says they're sorry – they didn't know that.

The officer is quiet for a minute. "Well," he says finally, "I hate to see beer go to waste." He looks at his watch. "You've got 15 seconds." Bottoms up.

"I can't believe he made him do that!" marvels Dwane after the heat dies down. "Right there on the street!" Someone else says it could have been worse. "Yeah," Dwane says, "a hundred dollars worse! And one less beer."

It's a warm June night in Telluride, Colorado, the sky clear and starry under a nearly full moon. Tonight is the first night of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the old-mining-town-turned-ski-mecca is crawling with Dobro freaks, busking fiddlers and old-timey music fans of all persuasions. Telluride is one of Mumford & Sons' favorite places on the planet: Banjo player Winston Marshall says after they visited the festival last year, playing to 300 people in a tiny opera house, they immediately started plotting how to come back.

It turned out the return invite wouldn't be a problem. Within the past year, Mumford & Sons have become one of the biggest success stories in rock. On the strength of their two big singles – the joyous "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man," which features the irresistibly bleep-worthy refrain "I really fucked it up this time, didn't I, my dear?" – their first album, Sigh No More, has sold more than 1.6 million copies, including a million this year alone. The weekend before Telluride, they played a raucous set at Bonnaroo that was so popular it disrupted the festival's gravitational balance, drawing more people to the second stage than many bands did to the main one. The weekend after, they'll play Glastonbury, right before U2. They've made fans of everyone from Ray Davies to Taylor Swift, and even Wiz Khalifa has given them a shout-out.

"It scares the shit out of me sometimes," says frontman Marcus Mumford, 24, of the band's success. "I just feel like, not only do we not deserve to be here, but we're not good enough to be here. I guess we had a dynamic, and it caught on."

The headiest moment of all came in February, when Mumford & Sons got to perform at the Grammys with Bob Dylan, backing him on "Maggie's Farm" after playing "The Cave" by themselves. Mumford says Dylan didn't say much – "I think he was nervous" – though he did give them one instruction: "He told us to 'keep stomping.'" The rest of the weekend turned out to be just as surreal: They met Usher and Gwyneth, got high-fives from R. Kelly, and shared a very crowded elevator with fellow Best New Artist nominee Justin Bieber and his security detail, during which Marshall cheekily proposed that "the youngest passenger should leave." ("We were a bit drunk and English," Dwane says, smiling.)

And yet somehow they've achieved it all with a name like a Victorian barrister's office and the kind of music that went out of fashion circa the Victrola. It's taking nothing away from their musical charms to call the band's success a little head-scratching – almost like . . . "an accident?" Lovett says. "It is. Absolutely. No two ways about it. Our only saving grace is that we work really hard. Apart from that, who knows why people like it?"

"It's really weird to me that people like our music," agrees Mumford. "It's pretty straightforward. There's no flash to it. And there are so many other bands doing it. People are like, 'Don't listen to Mumford & Sons – listen to this band.' And I'm like, 'I know!' We're just mediocre, slightly overweight English musicians. We're fat, sweaty, and we try hard."

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