There’s a new bluegrass band in town featuring members of Billy Strings‘ outfit, Leftover Salmon, Punch Brothers, and Watchhouse calling themselves Mighty Poplar. The group’s self-titled, debut album is out on March 31st via Free Dirt Records with the first single, “Up On The Divide”, out now.
Comprised of Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse), Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon), and Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings), the group formed as a way for the members to explore their improvisational pursuits through bluegrass. Each musician comes from a different corner of the roots spectrum, from Leftover Salmon’s lineage as slamgrass forefathers—charting a path to the new jamgrass hero Billy Strings—to Punch Brothers’ more traditional style of mountain music, all the way to the indie-folk songsmith from Watchhouse.
Pikelny, Eldridge, and Garrison were all acquainted from their tenure with Punch Brothers, but it was impromptu jams with Marlin backstage at festivals across the country that formed the genesis for the group. The band recorded Mighty Poplar “knee-to-knee” in a cabin in the woods outside Nashville with a loose, improvisational spirit that keeps the band tethered to those backstage jams. The resulting 10-track collection is comprised of covers Marlin collected over the years, with the Watchhouse co-founder singing lead on tracks from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, John Hartford, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Norman Blake.
“The songs really came into their own in front of the mics,” Pikelny explained. “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.”
The project was inspired by 1980s releases from The Bluegrass Album Band, which gathered a rotating lineup of the era’s luminaries for cover records. Mighty Poplar strives to emulate the spontaneity of those albums with a crop of fresh faces making waves in modern bluegrass.
“My love for the sound and feel of those Bluegrass Album Band records—the energy, the undeniable chemistry, the subtle virtuosity—led me to imagine what that might look like in our collective gumbo of today’s bluegrass,” Garrison said. “We grew up on those records,” Eldridge added. “We loved the idea of musicians banding together for a special project where you explore your common influences.”
The band offers its own unique arrangements of compositions from pivotal songwriters, including a revised take on Cohen’s “Story of Isaac”.
“Cohen’s version was so heavy,” Marlin said. “The first time I ever heard him sing that tune I felt like I’d just survived falling down a hill. For our version, I tried to take this really serious heavy subject and put it to some not-quite-as-heavy music.” Marlin joked that’s the spirit of bluegrass. “You take sad songs and make them sound a little happier, and you’ve got yourself a Stanley Brothers album all of a sudden.”
In the end, what united these musicians was the communal groove sparked by so many jam sessions. As Marlin observed, “I’ve never played in a bluegrass setting where the groove was so undeniable. The songs just unfolded because the playing wasn’t something to think about.”
Check out the debut single from Mighty Poplar, “Up On The Divide”, written by Martha Scanlan. The band’s album is available here for pre-order. Mighty Poplar will debut its material in front of live audiences in May throughout the Western United States. Visit the group’s website for tickets and a full list of dates.
Mighty Poplar – “Up On The Divide” (Martha Scanlan)
View this post on Instagram