Last fall in an old tractor shed in the woods outside Nashville, a Mighty Poplar sprouted from its roots. The result of stylistic cross-pollination, impromptu backstage jams, and hundreds of years of mountain traditions, this new musical collaboration brings the storytelling sensibilities of folk to the improvisational conversation of bluegrass with its self-titled debut album, out today on streaming platforms.

Featuring a call sheet of modern bluegrass notables including banjoist Noam Pikelny and guitarist/vocalist Chris “Critter” Eldridge (Punch Brothers), bassist Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon), and fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings), Mighty Poplar—an equal collaboration amongst its members—found its voice in mandolinist/vocalist Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse. In the duo formerly known as Mandolin Orange, Marlin has spent the past 14 years with his partner in music and life, Emily Frantz, developing a sound that melds the sentimentality of folk traditions with the restorative quality of new-age music.

Throughout his musical life, Marlin has found a calling as a “gatherer” of songs. From his first obsession with Led Zeppelin to the bluegrass jams he found late in adolescence to the roots music that guides him today, Marlin’s tomes of found lyrics are the spirit that animated what became Mighty Poplar. Taking the plunge from festival jam sessions to a proper recording studio, the members of Mighty Poplar came together for a week in Nashville at The Tractor Shed, a converted facility that once housed farming equipment, with the songs Marlin picked out as guides.

The group’s resulting self-titled debut weaves together threads from throughout the past 200 years of musical lineage. Traditional mountain ballads are illuminated with the spark that is turning a younger generation onto bluegrass in droves. Lesser-known classics by towering songwriters take on fresh perspectives with unique interpretations and compositions. To listen to the covers on Mighty Poplar is to chart a history of American musical storytelling. With an ace band joining him, Marlin’s voice guides this expedition into the national songbook and delivers a concise, 10-song encapsulation of our shared musical heritage.

Live For Live Music got a chance to catch up with Marlin ahead of the album’s release. Read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

Live For Live Music: Can you tell me a little bit about how Mighty Poplar came together?

Andrew Marlin: Originally, I think Greg [Garrison, Leftover Salmon] had the idea … to do a little nod to The Bluegrass Album Band and the spirit of [those albums]: Just get a bunch of people together to make just a bluegrass record. I know he started talking to Noam [Pikelny, Punch Brothers] about this. I guess from there they branched out and figured out the rest of the band. I think I was in on the whole thing pretty early … I think it all started with just a little seed got planted in Greg after listening to some of those old Bluegrass Album Band records.

Live For Live Music: From what I read as far as those guys coming together, it was a jam session type of thing at festivals around the country. But then at some point, it sounds like it became imbued with its own kind of spirit.

Andrew Marlin: Totally, and I think something similar happened with us when we all finally got together to play. There was just a natural sound that came with that. I just saw everybody in the room light up a little bit like, “Dude, this is going to be so much fun.”

Live For Live Music: Then, how do you get from those initial meetings out to the Tractor Shed in Nashville where you recorded the album?

Andrew Marlin: The funny thing is with this record is the first time we got together was at the Tractor Shed, so we had never played together as an actual five-piece band. We had all played in each other’s bands, and played with each other backstage and sat down and kind of exchanged tunes at different festivals. But never had all five of us gotten together and tried to play together. So, it was kind of a leap of faith in that regard, just kind of knowing who we were asking to play and trusting the fact that when we all got together it was going to feel good and sound good. Luckily, that’s exactly how it went.

It’s fun to think about as improvisational musicians. … You have so many experiences of just kind of winging it and just being left to your own devices. Just being thrown out there and you’re suspended in this music, and all of a sudden it’s like, “This is your moment. Do whatever you want to here.” And I think that in some ways, you get really comfortable with that aspect of playing in front of all these people, and it becomes part of how you just live. It’s like you kind of get out and you trust your own experiences and your own intuition maybe a little more because of it.

Live For Live Music: What has the experience been like for you as somebody who comes from not as much of that improvisational background versus Leftover Salmon or Billy Strings?

Andrew Marlin: I love it, man. It’s my favorite thing to do is to sit down with people and just see what happens. We’re not playing super fast music, but all of mine and Emily [Frantz]’s shows as Watchhouse, whether we’ve got the band or just the duo, we’re all improvising up there. All the solos are improvised, the forms are loose. We kind of just go on nods and eyebrows to help us navigate the tunes.

So, [I’m] very familiar with improvising. It’s just more [I’m impressed] at that speed that the rest of this band, Mighty Poplar, is able to do it. It’s crazy how much they can just step inside of a tune at 150 beats a minute and actually look around. That’s crazy, and it’s awesome to witness and be a part of.

Live For Live Music: It’s like being a race car driver, where you’re just making all these snap decisions in a fraction of a second.

Andrew Marlin: Yeah, totally. Like riding inches away from the side wall.

Live For Live Music: What was the process like for finding that communal groove when you first got to the Tractor Shed to play with each other for the first time?

Andrew Marlin: Oh man, it was great. … [By] this point we had pretty much chosen the tunes, so we knew what we wanted to just play through and just see. I guess we had all been playing these songs on our own and trying to familiarize ourselves with them, so it felt that much better to all of a sudden have the support instead of just imagining the bass, and imagining what Chris is going to be doing on the guitar, and how Noam’s banjo role is going to kind of dictate the drive of this song, or the wave that we can all hop on. Finally feeling that for the first time was … it was pretty miraculous, man. … It was all just laid out. So I felt like I was able to just swim, and I appreciated them for it.

Live For Live Music: Has Mighty Poplar gotten a chance to play live yet?

Andrew Marlin: No. Well, actually yes we have. But it was kind of on accident. We were all at this festival called Green Mountain up in Vermont. They had a Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs tribute set. So, since we were all there, [we] decided to do a few songs, just the five of us. But we didn’t even play anything off the record, we just played. So, maybe that’s what the live shows will be, too. Who knows.

Mighty Poplar – “Tipper” (Tony Rice) – 8/21/22

[Video: Less Than Face Productions]

Green Mountain Bluegrass All Stars Skaggs and Rice – Manchester, VT – 8/21/22 – Full Set

[Video: Less Than Face Productions]

Live For Live Music: How do you see your role within the context of this group?

Andrew Marlin: I was doing a lot of lead singing, so kind of drifting in and out of being a soloist and a lead singer is kind of how I think about it, I reckon. But I guess these days I don’t really think about it too much. I kind of just feel it out. Then, every song’s a little different, every groove’s a little different, and everybody’s trying to also create space so that we all pick on different roles throughout. Maybe one instrument will be more featured on one song, and then on the next one we’ll feature a different one.

I think it’s more just the way I see my role in terms of fitting into the band: not as a mandolin player, but just as a fellow human trying to navigate this music. It’s nice to not be the lead person. Like in Watchhouse, it’s my band. I write the tunes and, between me and Emily, make all the decisions. And here, it’s a five-piece band, so I’m learning how to navigate that, as well. And the best way I’ve figured out so far is to just never be the first one to answer. I’ll just kind of wait and see where everybody else is at and then see how that rubs. Usually, I’m totally fine with it, so I’m really enjoying that. Just getting to just be a part of a larger kind of ownership. I feel like it feels very communal.

Live For Live Music: It’s a little bit of anonymity, being a member of this five-piece band that’s playing other people’s songs.

Andrew Marlin: Yeah, it’s wonderful, man. I get to hold on to a little bit more of myself with this project, which is kind of nice. Because it’s a little easier to change from night to night based on how I feel when we finally hit the road.

Live For Live Music: That’s interesting that you say you can hold on a little bit more to yourself in this project that isn’t even putting forth your music, and you’re not at the front.

Andrew Marlin: Well, I mean, in Watchhouse, I’m singing songs that I’ve written, and I think just singing in front of people requires you to let go of a little bit. Then, to put out these songs that are all very personal to me, and I’m talking about my family life and those kind of things, then also putting myself out there, taking a solo on the mandolin. There’s a lot of different aspects of it where I really have to take ownership in that music, down to the people playing with us on stage, I chose them. Me and Emily chose them.

So, I do love in Mighty Poplar where I’m not having to just bear the full stretch of my spirit out there. I can kind of hold onto it, and it allows me to channel a little more energy through the roles that I do have, because they’re not so spread thin. It’s a good buildup and, I don’t know, it’s a small release valve. So, it’s like I’m able to put more pressure into that smaller release valve.

Live For Live Music: I read that you had described your position in Mighty Poplar as a “song gatherer,” because you picked out a lot of these songs for the album. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means to you to be a “song gatherer?”

Andrew Marlin: I think that’s a funny term. It sounds so ancient [laughs]. But I don’t feel that when I’m gathering songs out in the wilderness. It’s putting them in my little canvas bag there. I think I just see what sticks when I’m listening to someone’s record, or just letting the playlist go, or whatever. Sitting down, putting on vinyl. I love to listen to music. But they don’t always stick, you know what I mean? Sometimes, they hit the wall and they just bounce right off, and it’s like, it’s a great song, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to carry it with me.

But the ones that I end up carrying with me and wanting to learn, can’t get out of my head, and finally I’m like, “Alright. Man, I got to sit down. I got to learn these lyrics and just do myself a favor,” those are the ones that I tend to just write down. … So, there was a bunch of these tunes that I knew if I ever did a bluegrass record, they were songs that I wanted to bring forward and maybe try and sing.

I enjoyed that process a lot with the Mighty Poplar record. … Luckily, the dudes were all really excited about a lot of the songs that I chose, and I got a bunch more stored up, so I’m hoping they’re down to get together again and make another record at some point.

Live For Live Music: There’s a wide swath on the album, all the way from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard to Leonard Cohen to John Hartford, Norman Blake. What was it about these songs that made them “stick” for you?

Andrew Marlin: Wherever I was in my life, I guess, when I was listening to it, it just hit a little harder that day, so I held onto it. But I guess I’ve always listened to a lot of different music. I came to bluegrass a little later. I’d never even been to a bluegrass jam before I was like 19. Then from there, I just fell in love with the music and a lot of the songwriters, but I still love to go back and listen to all sorts of things. … I didn’t grow up listening to bluegrass music. I grew up listening to, I think, Zeppelin was the band that first hit me so hard where I was just like, “Holy hell, this band is amazing.” Going back and listening to those records, those have got to be some of the best records made. Just the sound of them and how gritty they are, and just groovy they are. Just so many wonderful layers and ideas there.

So, anyways… point being it’s fun to reach into the bag of songs that, no matter what the genre is, peeled back it usually starts with a piano and a voice, or a guitar and a voice, meaning that you can build it back up however you want to. I feel like that’s the mark of a great tune, are the ones that when you peel them all the way back, they still feel like great tunes. I think the ones we chose on this record have that quality to them, where it’s like, even if you don’t have a band or a bunch of sounds going on with it, they’re just good tunes. I think that matters. Tony Rice was really good about that, about always just choosing really great songs for his records.

Live For Live Music: You said, “If I ever made a bluegrass record, I would put some of these songs on there.” Obviously, this Mighty Poplar album very rooted in bluegrass, but it has some other things to offer. You have “North Country Blues”, a salt-of-the-Earth kind of folk song. Then “Up on the Divide” which, produced a little differently, could sound like a Watchhouse song.

Andrew Marlin: That was really fun to just see Noam, Critter, Greg, and Alex navigate some of those slower, kind of spacier songwriter tunes. Just really straightforward songs where basically it’s just groove and melody. Those guys just have so many different areas they can tap into with their playing. I think that also made the songs feel really natural and just record really easily. The way everybody played together, and the way … specifically Nome, I know, it seems like he’s just sitting there just rolling along with the banjo., just listening to what everyone is doing, and he is answering each of us throughout. You kind of feel that through the record and through each tune where it’s just these little handoffs that are very subtle. But the music is just constantly in motion. It never settles, but somehow still feels settled. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Live For Live Music: That’s the thing with a lot of these songs, some of them are old songs that have been traditionally handed down. Things like “Kicking Up the Devil on a Holiday”, or even “Lovin’ Babe”. Then there’s other ones, obviously, I’m going to bring up “Story of Isaac”, the Leonard Cohen transformation where you take this dark song give it an element of hope.

Andrew Marlin: Yeah, I think that the hope would come from listening to those lyrics and actually taking something away from it. … That was one of the intentions with the way we recorded that tune, was to rewrite the melody and to rewrite the chords so that it wasn’t just, like, this heap of heaviness. The heaviness of those lyrics can just ride right on top. I feel like the way we change those chords and the melody makes it still a pleasant listening experience. So, that it’s … I don’t know, it allows me to listen to it with a happier part of my brain while processing these really heavy lyrics.

Live For Live Music: As a songwriter yourself, how do you feel about rewriting these songs by great writers like Bob Dylan, or John Hartford, or Leonard Cohen, and putting your own kind of spin on that?

Andrew Marlin: I mean, I feel like that’s there for anyone who wants to do it. I think the important thing with music for me is to remember that it is fun and it’s a process. It’s not a sport, it’s an artistic expression. I feel like as soon as you put songs out in the world, whether you’re Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan, or me, or Josh Oliver, or whoever, as soon as it goes out into the world, you’ve given it to the world.

For me it was such a fun process to figure out not only how to sing these songs in a way that feels relevant to me, but in a way that made it fun to play with this band. … If I sing someone else’s song it’s because I can identify with the song, and I want that to be part of something that I put out into the world. I think that’s really important to me, and through that, it meant a lot to me to actually spend more time with the songs and try to get them to a place that sonically felt very relevant to me and fun to play. So, hopefully I haven’t offended anybody in doing it. But if I have, I did really enjoy myself while doing so.

Mighty Poplar is out now across streaming services. The band will make its proper live debut on May 8th at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, CO, followed by a run of Western U.S. tour dates throughout May. Tickets and a full list of tour dates are available here.

Mighty Poplar – Mighty Poplar – Full Album