Album Review of
Mighty Poplar

Written by Joe Ross
March 31, 2023 - 1:59pm EDT
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For a bluegrass band’s name, Mighty Poplar makes a lot of sense, a witty play on words for the organic and earthy niche music these song-carriers present. From Chapel Hill, N.C., you may remember Andrew Marlin (mandolin, guitar) who formed the band Mandolin Orange in 2009 (later called Watchhouse). After a couple self-released albums, they released four projects on the Yep Roc label. On Mighty Poplar’s debut album, Marlin sings most of the lead vocals.

Mighty Poplar offers a varied selection of numbers like A. P. Carter’s “A Distant Land to Roam” and “Blackjack Davy,” to John Hartford’s “Let Him Go On Mama,” Bob Dylan’s “North Country Blues,” Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” and Martha Scanlan’s “Up on the Great Divide.” The band members all had a hand in arranging old traditional favorites like “Little Joe,” “Lovin’ Babe,” “Grey Eagle” and a medley of “Kicking Up the Devil on a Holiday / Dr. Hecock’s Jig.”  

Mighty Poplar’s banjo player Noam Pikelny, originally from Champaign, Illinois, was inspired as a teen by Bela Fleck. He has worked with Czech guitarist Slavek Hanslik, Leftover Salmon, John Cowan Band, Jordan Tice and The Punch Brothers. You may remember that, in 2010, Pikelny won the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. His 2013 album, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe won an IBMA Award for Instrumental Album of 2014, the same year he won IBMA Banjo Player of the Year, and award he won again in 2017.

Might Poplar’s guitarist Chris Eldridge formed The Infamous Stringdusters in 2005. The son of Seldom Scene banjo player Ben Eldridge, Chris (aka “Critter”) graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Ohio). In 2006, Eldridge left Infamous Stringdusters to work with The Punch Brothers, originally also including Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Greg Garrison (bass).  That band relocated from Nashville to New York City in 2008 and took their name from a Mark Twain description of a sign in a subway station instructing conductors to “Punch brothers! Punch with care!”

In 2008, bassist Greg Garrison left The Punch Brothers. It’s nice to see him back playing with Pikelny and Eldridge again in Mighty Poplar. Fiddler Alex Hargreaves, originally from Oregon, is also an up-and-coming instrumentalist who has been making a big splash with his smooth, eclectic playing in the last several years, most recently with Billy Strings.

The friendship, collaboration and enthusiasm of these five stellar Mighty Poplar bandmates took on a kind of snowball effect, without being over thought or arranged. After months of pandemic lockdown and practicing on their own, this resulting album felt more like a reunion record that shared a familiar and collective vision of what it should be. They threw aside structure in favor of spontaneous engagement and communication, and that translated into the spirited energy we hear leap out of the speakers.

Eldridge stated, “It’s really important to … keep reminding yourself all the different ways that music can be exciting, fun and joyful. Also you kind of strengthen those muscles when you go somewhere else and you get to bring some of that sensibility, confidence and assurance, back to other contexts that you might be in.”  Making this album was a chance for these eclectic bluegrass musicians to come full circle, and I look forward to future volumes from Mighty Poplar.

Mighty Poplar cleverly finds great songs from yesteryear and then puts their contemporary personalized stamp on them. Whether it be an old English child ballad, folk song, old-time fiddle tune or traditional bluegrass song, Mighty Poplar embraces them to make them their own. It’s a powerfully hip and fashionable approach that should build them a legion of fans for their spirit, creativity and exciting interpretations of timeless and established repertoire to carry it into future generations. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)