Debut album from bluegrass supergroup, Mighty Poplar – intriguing takes on well-known classics and deep cuts from the bluegrass songbook
Release Date: 31st March 2023
Label: Free Dirt Records
Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital
Mighty Poplar is a supergroup, in the truest sense of that often-overused phrase. All grand masters of the bluegrass genre, the band’s members ply their daily trades with such bands as Watchhouse, Punch Brothers and Leftover Salmon – and I’ll fill in the details in a minute… They’ve known each other for many years and, over those years, have often participated, in various combinations, in impromptu backstage jams at festivals all over the USA. The jams were always fun and, in hindsight, it was probably always just a matter of time before the guys decided to get together in the studio to share that fun with the rest of us. Ladies and Gentlemen: Mighty Poplar.
Mighty Poplar are: Andrew Marlin – one half of North Carolina bluegrass duo Watchhouse – on lead vocals, guitar and mandolin, Punch Brothers Noam Pikelny (banjo and National steel guitar) and Chris Eldridge (guitar), Greg Garrison – bassist with Colorado Zydeco outfit Leftover Salmon and Alex Hargreaves, fiddler with Grammy winner Billy Strings. Mighty Poplar is, indeed, a collective with pedigree.
To understand a little more about the treats in store on this astonishing debut venture, it is, perhaps worthwhile dwelling a little longer on where each of these excellent musicians have come from. Alongside his life partner, fiddler Emily Franz, Andrew spends most of his time with Watchhouse. The duo’s original moniker was Mandolin Orange and their 2021 self-titled album was their sixth – their first using their current name. If Mighty Poplar can be said to have a driving inspiration, it’s Andrew – he chose the eclectic selection of songs that comprise the album, and he’s the guy that sings them – with one of the most melodic and well-suited voices that you’ll hear this side of next Christmas.
The Punch Brothers – the musical home of Noam and Chris – formed in Brooklyn back in 2006. Originally known as How To Grow A Band, the five-piece ensemble released their most recent album, Hell On Church Street, in 2021. The album, conceived during lockdown, is a reimagination of Church Street Blues, the seminal 1983 album by the late, influential, bluegrass guitarist, Tony Rice.
Hailing from Boulder, Colorado, Greg’s Band, Leftover Salmon, was formed in 1989 by a merger of members from The Salmon Heads and The Left Hand String Band. Leftover Salmon’s most recent album release was Brand New Good Old Days (2021).
And that leaves fiddler Alex, a man with a CV to match that of any musician on either side of the Atlantic. Another Brooklynite, he’s currently working alongside the great Billy Strings and his past achievements, which include tours and albums with the likes of Jerry Douglas, Kacey Musgraves and Sarah Jarosz and appearances on Saturday Night Live. He also teaches music – both in person and online.
We’re talking about highly active, experienced and accomplished musicians here…
And Andrew’s selection of material for this Mighty Poplar album is eclectic indeed. Songs from the canons of The Carter Family, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, John Hartford and Norman Blake sit comfortably alongside thoughtful adaptations of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Martha Scanlan compositions. The musicianship is, it’s almost needless to say, impeccable throughout with each band member switching comfortably between sideman and frontman roles, providing rhythm and often breathtaking solo parts with ease. The kind of breakneck front-porch bluegrass familiar to anyone with an album by The Dillards is here in plentiful supply, but there’s also a mellower side to Mighty Poplar, particularly when they peel back the Appalachian skin to expose the Irish or Scottish roots of a song or tune.
Every track on Mighty Poplar is a pleasure to listen to and most listeners will identify at least a few familiar points of reference. And, whether that familiarity is sparked by accomplished, respectful interpretations of The Carter Family’s A Distant Land to Roam, Martha Scanlan’s wonderful Up On The Divide, the traditional Black Jack Davy or Dylan’s North Country Blues, the quality and empathy of the playing and the ownership that Andrew takes of the song’s lyrics are striking.
The album’s highlights are almost too numerous to pick out, but I’ll have a go. The instrumental Grey Eagle allows every band member to show exactly what he’s capable of, as fiddle, mandolin and guitar all take a turn in the soloist’s spotlight on what might just be the most exhilarating piece of bluegrass that I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. The same goes for the version of Norman Blake’s Little Joe, with Noam’s banjo joining in with the delightful row. Andrew’s vocal for John Hartford’s Let Him Go On Mama is possibly his best on the album; it’s a great song, too, and Hartford’s lyrics – referencing work on board the Mississippi riverboats, moonshining and reefer consumption are delivered with a wonderfully easy-going reverence. The band even manage to throw in a touch of ragtime for good measure!
The band perhaps get closest to the musical roots of these tunes when they tackle the Irish Reel, Kicking Up the Devil on a Holiday as they deliver a sound that will be familiar to anyone grounded in British folk-rock before they burst back into their bluegrass home ground to tackle the accompanying Dr. Hecock’s Jig.
It’s always a good idea to save the best until last, and that’s what Mighty Poplar have, at least in my opinion, done here. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Story of Isaac is given a traditional folk makeover. The tune has a strong Scottish feel – to which the guitar and fiddle pay full respect and Andrew’s vocal delivery adds a thoroughly comforting edge to a dramatic story of intended child sacrifice. It’s an inspired adaptation of a classic song, and it crystalizes, I believe, everything that Mighty Poplar have set out to achieve with this excellent album.
Watch Mighty Poplar perform Up On The Divide – a track from the album – here: