In the Spotlight: Mighty Poplar

The cover image of Mighty Poplar’s eponymous new album reveals all we need to know about it: these guys sitting on the front porch of a rustic cabin are laughing and having fun. They’re enjoying a spirited conversation, chuckling over a tale well told or a cracking good joke. Each musician holds his instrument, and their smiles reveal that they’ve found the right groove on the song they’ve just finished. Even more important, they’re extending a warm invitation to listeners to come and sit a spell with them for a while on that front porch and join them as they share a few rollicking bluegrass ramblers or regale with a tender folk ballad.

In October 2020, the five musicians on the cover—Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar and mandolin, Andrew Marlin on mandolin and guitar, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Greg Garrison on bass—sat down in a studio for the first time together to play the bluegrass music they love. The web of connections among them is strong—Eldridge and Pikelny played in Punch Brothers for over a decade, and Garrison had been the bassist in the band for a while, though he is now with Leftover Salmon. Marlin of Watchhouse and Hargreaves, who plays with Billy Strings, would often join the others for late night jams at bluegrass festivals.

“We had these wonderful late night jams with Andrew and Emily,” recalls Eldridge, “and Alex has been blowing us away the last ten years.” Pikelny, too, sings the praises of his fellow musicians, continually and gleefully astonished at the musical craftsmen among whom he finds himself. “Andrew has a shoot-from-the-hip fearlessness, and he’s an excellent song curator and singer. Alex and Greg are excellent jazz players, steeped in that tradition. Critter is a direct link to Tony Rice, and Tony Rice made everybody who played with him better.”

The impromptu backstage jams set the wheels turning, and so the five started talking about a desire to return to their roots and make a bluegrass record. Says Pikelny, “the music is the cornerstone of all our pursuits, and we yearned to return to it.” Eldridge echoes this feeling: “We’ve all had a desire to do something connected to real bluegrass; we wanted to play in a project where bluegrass is its heartbeat. We all understood this was our opportunity to get together and play the music that falls out of you.”

When the band got together in 2020, the record came together in just a few days. “The first time we got together there was no rehearsal. What you hear on the record is us discovering the music together,” says Eldridge. Pikelny adds: “We went for live takes. This is the sound of us in front of the microphone for the first time.”

The band chose songs, and two instrumentals, from their heroes and inspirations. Says Pikelny: “The way we chose this material is biographical in the sense that we’re kind of showing our cards in how we make music and how we arrange and deliver the music.”

Mighty Poplar explores a wide range of musical terrain here, moving from traditional string band songs to songs written by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. “These songs were written in different generations,” notes Pikelny, “and it feels like they could be chapters in a short story.”

The album opens with a rousing, rollicking take on A.P Carter’s high lonesome scamper “A Distant Land to Roam,” which kicks off with Pikelny’s buoyant banjo picking; Marlin’s fierce mandolin runs dart and dash around Hargreaves’ flying fiddle and Pikelny’s hopping banjo on the instrumental bridge. The band’s poignant take on Martha Scanlan’s “Up on the Divide” conveys the changing physical landscape of Montana, providing a cinematic view of the emotional toll that life “up on the divide” often takes on individuals. Mighty Poplar serves up a tasty version of A.P. Carter’s “Blackjack Davy,” with Eldridge’s crisp guitar runs leading off the instrumental bridge before Marlin’s crystalline mandolin picks up the thematic line. The band turns in a lilting beauty of a version of Dylan’s “North Country Blues,” and they stretch way out on the instrumental medley “Kicking Up the Devil on Holiday/Dr. Hecock’s Jig.” The album closes with a gorgeously somber version of Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac.”

Every musician in Mighty Poplar dwells in these songs, finding the notes between the notes and picking up thematic lines where other instruments leave off; the artists tap into the roots of the songs, nurturing them so that new leaves unfurl and new branches grow steadily. As Pikelny observes, “music is all about reaction and interplay. My role as a banjo player is to help Andrew paint a picture.”

In the end, the joy that Mighty Poplar felt in making this album washes over anyone who listens to it, and listeners feel deeply the passion and exultation with which the band imbues each song. As Eldridge reflects: “Everything about making this album has been so joyful. We’re excited finally to be getting to share it with everybody.” In the words of Bill Monroe, this album is bound to be “mighty pop’lar.”

Mighty Poplar is available HERE.

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