A few years ago, singer Wesley Schultz said, hearing The Lumineers' brand of all-acoustic folk rock on a Top 40 countdown would have been pretty unthinkable. Now his band's caught up in a wave that could crest at the Grammy Awards, and he says he's still trying to sort out why.
"I can tell you that when we play live and when we sometimes go out in the audience, the reaction to just playing your instruments without any help, without any amplification or tricks, that surprises people in kind of a funny way because you'd think that most people would assume you could play your instruments and how it would sound," Schultz said. "But they're caught off guard, I think. People are used to things that are overproduced or slick or glossy, and this isn't any of that."
It's been two years since producer Ken Ehrlich and the Grammy Awards reintroduced the world to folk rock, pairing the dazzlingly handsome young bands Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers with Bob Dylan for a rocking rendition of "Maggie's Farm." The acoustic movement was always part of the general fabric of music, but it's moved out of the neighborhood park and small club and into the arena since that segment aired.
"There was a lot of music I loved that year, but I particularly loved the Avetts and I loved Mumford and I wanted a way to get them on," Ehrlich said. "And to be honest with you, not many people knew about either of those things until we put them on. But the way I wanted to put them on was to frame them. Again, it goes back to where did they come from? They came from Bob Dylan, you know?"
It was a big bang moment, mixing the authenticity of Dylan with the scruffy, intense earnestness of the young acts. The show immediately made the music accessible for millions of fans.
Flash forward and the London-based Mumford & Sons are platinum-selling artists who draw 10,000 at a pop and are among the six top nominees at the Feb. 10 awards show in Los Angeles with six nominations, including album of the year for "Babel."
The like-minded Lumineers, whose self-titled album shot to No. 2 last week on the Billboard 200 -- 10 months after its release -- have two nominations, including a coveted spot on the best new artist list alongside spiritual cousins Alabama Shakes. The Avetts are back in the Americana category. The Civil Wars, Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are aboard, too, among others.
Call it folk. Call it roots rock or Americana. Almost anywhere you go these days you can hear the lonesome sound of the banjo -- even in Brooklyn, now overcrowded with former hipsters turned would-be pickers trying to catch a ride on the wave.
"The last time I was in Brooklyn, somebody said, 'Hey, you can't go to any club here without hearing the banjo,'" Old Crow Medicine Show manager Norm Parenteau said. "So I had to apologize to the whole borough of Brooklyn: 'Sorry if we had anything to do with bringing banjos to Brooklyn.'"
No apologies necessary, especially when it comes to The Lumineers. Schultz and longtime friend and bandmate Jeremiah Fraites fled Brooklyn a few years ago.
"Every good character in a movie or play is either running toward something or running from something," Schultz said. "I think it was pretty apparent I was running from New York. I was pretty upset with my experience."
Unable to focus on music because of the number of odd jobs it took to survive in the city, they fled to Denver where they found cellist Neyla Pekarek on Craigslist. Yes, Craigslist. And it couldn't have worked out better. The scene there was thriving and diverse, full of contacts who helped them find gigs and hit the road where they honed their songs and their sound.
They did not aim for pop music stardom in their songwriting, preferring a raw sound they never figured would lead them down a red carpet and into the Staples Center. It's more of a lifestyle choice for many of the acoustic-leaning acts on this year's list.
"I see it more on a social level," Old Crow fiddler Ketch Secor said. "I see it as a reaction to Walmart parking lots and Applebee's, O'Charley's and country music. It's very much a reactionary kind of sound. That's something we arm ourselves with in this line of work. When you strap a banjo on you're making a choice."
"Country" Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons joked in an interview last year that he turned to the banjo for more practical reasons: "Not many play it in London so it's much easier to get a gig. And once you've got the gig there's not much competition, so you stick around."
Folk music was a novel sound the band turned to after hearing the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett.
The soundtrack "really sort of pierced through our teenage films, and especially for Winston and I, I think that became kind of an obsessive record for us and also opened avenues for us to explore artists like Emmylou Harris and also like Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, and then through those guys really the OCMS guys ... so they were like our gateway into sort of Americana really."
They've echoed those sounds back at a new generation, one that seems open to sad songs that resonate deeply -- like "Ho Hey." The song has surpassed 70 million global listens on Spotify and incongruously, Schultz said, it's been showing up as a first-dance song in weddings.
"And that's not where it came from," he said. "The feelings that made it come out were not necessarily about finding love, but losing love or missing love. I think that's what's interesting about songs. You can come from a dark place, but people see light in there and they can identify different parts of it."