(Photos by Joshua Black Wilkins)
See more photos from our cover shoot here.
On a late summer morning in Louisville, a stage is being set up in front of the Ohio River. Security guards in orange vests have put a long, temporary fence around the area, creating a makeshift venue where tonight’s concert will be held. Outside the fence, fans have already started lining up for the show. The queue stretches around the entire block, and it’s only 10:30 a.m.
Mumford & Sons have been awake for a few hours, even though most of the guys were out late the night before, wandering around town and checking out the local dive bars. Keyboardist Ben Lovett made the rookie mistake of going to a place off 2nd Avenue and ordering a glass of Jack Daniels, a big no-no in a city that takes extreme pride in its own whiskey. He was told off by the bartender, who eventually warmed up to the Englishman and took a minute to explain the differences between proper bourbon and inferior “Tennessee whiskey.” Lovett listened closely, apologized and made a mental note to never order Jack Daniels in Kentucky ever again. When in Rome, right?
Sitting on the band’s tour bus the next morning, Lovett relates the story in an amused, soft-spoken voice. Like the rest of his bandmates, he’s polite and almost ludicrously nice. Winston Marshall, the group’s banjo player and class clown, sits beside him, cracking jokes and rattling off a few more facts about Louisville, a place the Mumfords had never even seen until yesterday.
“This place has brought a lot of things to the world,” Marshall says. “Bluegrass. Bourbon. Baseball balls. Muhammad Ali. Fried chicken. I love chicken, and this might be our only chance to get real Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky.”
Marshall and Lovett laugh, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re joking. All summer long, Mumford & Sons have been traveling around the world, playing big cities like Louisville and small towns like Dungog, New South Wales (population: 2,100). To hear them tell it, the smaller towns are the way to go. Places like Dungog and Bristol, Tennessee, have been a welcome change of pace, an opportunity to avoid the worst things about touring – the big, anonymous venues; the busy schedules; the inability to explore a city before it’s time to leave for the next one – and focus on something different. Instead, they’ve been scheduling day-long festivals in seven of those small towns, capping each of them with a big Mumford & Sons show and a handful of local after-parties. These mini-fests have been dubbed the “Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers,” and they sound like a lot of work. Even so, the guys are happy. They’re traveling to the unsung pockets of the world, shaking hands with mayors, walking down quaint Main Streets and generally diving headfirst into whatever zany stuff these places have to offer … including fried chicken.
In Dixon, Illinois – a place known for its large number of petunias, as well as being the childhood home of Ronald Reagan – they doubled the local population by bringing 15,000 fans into town. After their concert wrapped up around 11:00 p.m., most of those people flooded the Dixon streets. Some went into restaurants for a late-night snack. Others hit up the bars downtown. Approximately 1,000 squeezed themselves into the Historic Dixon Theater, where Jerry Douglas and Mumford played a late-night show. Since there was only one hotel in town, 7,000 people opted to camp out, spreading themselves across the town baseball park, the middle school football field and a local Christian camp.
“The economic impact was huge,” says Josh Albrecht, executive director of Dixon’s Main Street association. “I know of at least two businesses that were saved because of this event. The impact on our businesses and the morale of the city is just beyond awesome. It has changed the way people think about our community.”
When asked if he’d do it again, Albrecht is quick with his response.
“Without a doubt. I would do it next week if I could.”
Tonight’s Louisville show promises to be different. This place is much bigger than Dixon, and the city’s economic health doesn’t rely on a rock and roll concert. Still, Louisville is a brand new city for Mumford, and they’re absorbing everything it has to offer.
“We played on a steamboat earlier today,” Marshall adds, twisting around to face the bus window and pointing toward the waterfront, where the century-old Belle of Louisville is docked. “I think it was part of a radio show, but it doesn’t matter why we were there. It was just a nice way to start the morning.”