Don’t blame Mumford & Sons. Marcus Mumford didn’t single-handedly cause all of those new bands to sound the same. It’s not like the British foursome went into a studio some years back to record their debut, Sigh No More, and said, “Gents, let’s make a record that will blow up so big that we’ll cause the entire industry to mimic us, thus driving out any originality in acoustic music.” It didn’t happen that way.
The Mumfords were part of a “folk” scene that included Noah & the Whale and Laura Marling, each helping the other out and paying tribute, in their own ways, to their idols — Marling to ’60s and ’70s greats, Mumford to anything T-Bone Burnett would put his name on. Who could have imagined it would have exploded so widely?
Go back to the mid-’90s, when popular music was either loud and dark or overproduced remnants of the ’80s. Hip-hop had made its way into the mainstream and was now in its third or fourth version (B-Boy to Jazz Rap to Gangsta), leaving room and a desire for something more homegrown. That’s when we got Hootie & the Blowfish and the era of college acoustic, when every kid on a campus corner strummed a G-C-D and begged to “Let Her Cry.”
It happened again nearly 10 years later, but not to such epic proportions. By the 2000s, music sales had reached their pinnacle when NSync’s No Strings Attached broke the record for highest one-week sales (2.4 million), a record that has yet to be beat. The rest of pop music at the time sounded much the same, and within that, left a small space open for John Mayer, Jack Johnson and Norah Jones. And while they all had their moments, not one of them scaled to the heights of “Little Lion Man” or “I Will Wait,” two songs that were fine at first, but holy cow! Who has the desire to turn them on now when they’re still everywhere?
It’s also unfair to say that every band with an acoustic guitar sounds like Mumford & Sons. I would argue that, aside from the “American Idol” winners that are indeed pushed to sound like the famed Brits (Phillip Phillips, I’m looking at you!), more of the clutter echoes The Lumineers, who actually sound a lot like the Avett Brothers, who, as it turns out, were another big influence on the Mumfords, but somehow didn’t complete the circle while doing so. I think we need to call John Walsh to figure how that happened.
The blame really lies with two guilty parties. First, the record labels, for smelling blood in the water. “What? The Mumfords are doing well? Then sign every band that sounds like them!” Come on, guys. Didn’t we learn from O-Town? Didn’t we learn from The Zutons? (Look ’em up, kids, they were real bands.) I’m not saying a good song shouldn’t be heard. I would wager that a majority of these acts were signed not because of their songs, but their sound.
The other culprit? Darius Rucker. It may seem a stretch, but theorize with me one moment. The lead singer for Hootie & the Blowfish was at the forefront of the ’90s version. Fast-forward 10 years to the second take and you’ll find that was the exact time Old Crow Medicine Show was just getting their start with a little song called “Wagon Wheel” — which, in turn, was covered by Rucker in his new solo career at the precise moment the latest edition was coming to its peak, opening the doors for a worldwide acoustic blowout.
This whole time you’ve been lamenting Marcus Mumford for ruining your playlist, but as it turns out, he was just a puppet on a string, controlled by a dude whose 1998 hit single that peaked at No. 4 on the chart was called ... “I Will Wait”!
Are Mumford the new Hootie? Maybe. We’ll have to wait another album or two to find out, but the same backlash is there, and history loves to repeat. Either way, both are way richer and more successful than me, and good for them. But make no doubt: I got my eye on you, Rucker!
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.