RECORD REVIEW: Roots Supergroup Mighty Poplar Turn A New Leaf On Self-Titled Album

As winter winds turn to sweet spring breezes, there’s one thing we can say for certain: it’s bluegrass season.

And there are few better ways to ring it in than by soaking in the debut self-titled album from new roots supergroup, Mighty Poplar, which dropped March 31st on Free Dirt Records. 

The exciting new unit that is Mighty Poplar boasts a star-studded roster that consists of singer-songwriter and mandolin player Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse; formerly known as Mandolin Orange), banjo player Noam Pikelny and guitarist Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), bassist Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon), and fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings). 

Though Pikelny, Eldridge, and Garrison go way back to their early days with the Punch Brothers, it was the impromptu backstage jams with Marlin at festivals across the country that brought this project to fruition.

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“Blackjack Davy”

So what happens when you put some of the finest string players of this generation in a room together?

A 10-track album of classic roots covers, dutifully curated by Marlin and bestowed with the fierce and playful energy of an all-night jam between old friends who just happen to be grandmasters of the music. Rooted in the stringed sounds of old-school Appalachia, Mighty Poplar sought to find their own arrangements and deliver fresh takes on the songs.

The album opens with “A Distant Land to Roam,” a new spin on a Carter Family classic that comes with its own joyful music video. Pikelny’s banjo shines as fellow group members call lyrics back and forth. Gentle harmonies and a fiery fiddle solo from Hargreaves carry us right into the next track, jumping quite a bit forward in time to Martha Scanlan’s, “Up on the Divide.”

“Up on the Divide” is an ode to springtime, and perhaps an ode to the magic sparked by conversations between a mandolin and guitar. A timeless tale about industrialism, Marlin sings, “The coal company man wants to eat up your coal / First he’ll swallow your cattle, then he’ll swallow your soul.” A little somber, a little sweet, and a whole lot of stellar musicianship. 

“Up on the Divide”

The instrumental number, “Grey Eagle” spotlights each artist in their element, as mandolin, fiddle, and guitar finds a shining moment amidst, well, several other shining moments. And perhaps it is also a radiating moment for the passion behind this project. In reflecting on what sets this group apart from their other full-time endeavors, Eldridge describes it as, “a chance to play real deal bluegrass.” And “Grey Eagle” is certainly a testament to that.

It’s clear that each player joined the new project out of pure mutual admiration and appreciation for one another, and knew they could make some magic. The album was recorded at a studio in the woods outside of Nashville dubbed “The Tractor Shed.” The literal converted shed brought a rustic warmth to the studio, and in turn, imbued each song with that same glow, as the players’ improvisational adventures built a structure for new interpretations of the songs. 

“The songs really came into their own in front of the mics,” Pikelny explains. “A lot of first or second exploratory ideas made it onto the record, as opposed to having an idea being thrown out and having weeks of refining and tweaking. I love catching that initial energy and spark. It means that things won’t always be squeaky clean, but I’ll take that lightning in a bottle over perfection.”

Mighty Poplar will be on the road out west this May, and you won’t want to miss ’em.

Catch Mighty Poplar On Tour:

Monday, May 8, 2023
Boulder, CO – Fox Theater

Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Fort Collins, CO – Washington’s

Wednesday, May 10, 2023
Denver, CO – Globe Hall

Thursday, May 11, 2023
Aztec, NM – Tico Time Bluegrass Festival

Friday, May 12, 2023
Phoenix, AZ – MIM Music Theater

Monday, May 15, 2023
Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s

Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up Tavern

Wednesday, May 17, 2023
Santa Barbara, CA – Lobero Theatre 

Thursday, May 18, 2023
Los Angeles, CA – Pico Union Project

Saturday, May 20, 2023
Felton, CA – Felton Music Hall

Sunday, May 21, 2023
Grass Valley, CA – The Center for the Arts

Monday, May 22, 2023
Berkeley, CA – Freight & Salvage

Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Seattle, WA – Neptune Theatre

Thursday, May 25, 2023
Portland, OR – Aladdin Theater

July 29, 2023
Lyons, CO – RockyGrass Festival

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