Tower of Song

Simone Felice looks like a grizzled road dog as he makes his way into our office the morning after his Nashville show. He’s still wearing the striped black-and-white pirate shirt he donned onstage the night before at the Cannery Ballroom, where he opened for the L.A. folk-rock band Dawes to a spirited and packed house. Felice may be in need of a shower, but he seems genuinely excited to be here despite the early hour. We’re setting up the mics and discussing Levon Helm, whom Felice got to know as a fellow Woodstock resident. Our talk drifts from the subject of the old masters to artists of a more recent vintage.

“People always talk about the great old stuff, but in Bristol we were saying how much great music is coming out now.” Just a few days before, Felice had played the Gentlemen of the Road stopover, in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, with Mumford & Sons, Justin Townes Earle, Dawes and others.

 The tour, which was put together by Mumford, boasted some of the best young songwriters in the folk and Americana worlds. Some of these groups – in particular, The Apache Relay of Nashville – are kindred spirits of the London-based folkies. Ever since they formed as a band in 2007, Mumford has sought to foster a sense of community, of shared brotherhood, among simpatico artists. It’s not so much about competition as it is about getting together with like-minded musicians and having fun.

This was part of the appeal of the Gentlemen of The Road affair, a mini-tour that stopped at various small towns and hamlets that don’t crop up on a band’s normal tour circuit. The stop in Bristol was especially appropriate as it befit Mumford’s obsession with American roots music. The Virginia – Tennessee border town produced the historic 1927 recordings of a handful of the region’s “hillbilly” singers. Often called the “Big Bang of country music,” it was these sessions that introduced Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family to a national audience.

Notwithstanding their deep and abiding appreciation for roots music, Mumford & Sons is not a revival band but very much a new kind of entity. Their fan base is now legion – and was acquired in the span of just a few years.  In its first week of release, their new album – Babel – solda whopping 600,000 units (420,000 of which were digital), giving them the best-selling debut sales week of 2012 for any artist. And the record logged more than 8 million plays on the streaming service Spotify, a company that has come under significant fire recently for not paying artists what they’re allegedly owed. Mumford’s sales success – in spite of the album’s availability on Spotify – could alter the way big-time artists approach streaming services.

In our cover story, Mumford discusses the evolution of the album and says much of its inspiration grew out of various Nashville picking parties. The band clearly has an affinity for Music City and has spent ample time here during the past few years, even playing two special shows at the Ryman earlier this year. Mumford further cemented their Nashville connection when they joined forces with Emmylou Harris for a performance on the CMT Crossroads series, a format where the two artists trade off on one another’s respective songs. “They’re making the banjo respectable again, which is no easy feat,” Emmylou said of the group. “And they’re great harmony singers and have this great, driving groove with minimalist instrumentation. They just sound good.”

 We cap this issue with an interview with Emmylou, who sheds light on what makes a good duet. She should know. She’s contributed to a lot of them over the years, including Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from the album Heartbreaker. We look at the early days of Ryan’s seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown in these pages, via an excerpt from David Menconi’s new book Losering. We also interview Dwight Yoakam about his album 3 Pears, and review a bounty of great guitars, amps and mics for your X-mas wish list.

Happy holidays.


Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at

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