At its heart, bluegrass music is about what happens when you commit to the moment. The joy of improvisation keeps the music fresh, and the fun of crafting ideas on the fly keeps the musicians on their toes. This true spirit of bluegrass infuses the self-titled record from Mighty Poplar, a new all-star roots project featuring Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse, Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers, bassist Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon) and fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings) coming March 31, 2023 on Free Dirt Records. Regarded as some of the finest players of their generation, the playing is never showy and always in service of the song. Though Pikelny, Eldridge, Garrison all knew each other from their early work with Punch Brothers, impromptu backstage jams with Marlin at festivals across the country were the key that unlocked the project. A lifelong song collector, Marlin selected and sang lead on most of the songs here, bringing classics as well as deep cuts from greats like Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, John Hartford, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Norman Blake. Throughout, the songs and tunes are as immediate and emotionally impactful as the playing is tasteful. Gathered knee-to-knee in a rural studio outside Nashville, the collaborative 10-track album emerged organically over a few days. “It felt so special and effortless; it didn’t take work,” says Eldridge, “other than the work and effort we’ve put in the rest of our lives.” With their debut album, Mighty Poplar has captured the fierce and playful energy of an all-night jam between old friends who just happen to be grandmasters of the music.
Speaking to the band, it’s clear that each player joined out of pure excitement to play music with each other. “I’m convinced Alex Hargreaves only knows how to play the perfect notes at the perfect times,” muses Eldridge. Pikelny speaks highly about Marlin’s innate musicality: “We listen to a lot of Watchhouse at our house. Supporting a singer and songwriter of Andrew’s caliber is about the most rewarding thing I get to do, so I leapt at the opportunity to collaborate when Greg first pitched the idea for this project.” Marlin talks up the other players’ instrumental virtuosity. “When I think about it from a player’s perspective, I didn’t feel like I belonged in this group; I haven’t spent my life trying to improve my chops. I’ve been more of a song gatherer,” a humble Marlin admits. That last point is key here, as it focused the approach to the new album on an appreciation for the roots of bluegrass and for the songs especially. Inspired by the 1980s albums of The Bluegrass Album Band, which united some of that era’s best bluegrass players, Mighty Poplar sought to emulate the fun and spontaneity of those inspirational recordings. “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,” says Garrison. “We grew up on those records,” Eldridge continues. “We loved the idea of musicians banding together for a special project where you explore your common influences.” But don’t mistake Mighty Poplar for a tribute record; the band aimed to find their own arrangements and deliver fresh takes on the songs. In Eldridge’s words: “It’s an homage to where we came from, without it being a recreation of an earlier era.”Website