Mighty Poplar — self-titled
Modern bluegrass is something I’ve had a love/not-so-much-love relationship with. The musicianship is as good as ever, but the jammy-ness that’s become so popular can tend to leave the songs behind. When new roots supergroup Mighty Poplar decided to take their act from impromptu jams to a proper album, they put singer-songwriter-mandolin player Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse) in charge of picking the tunes that would best fit both their talents and their taste. The band’s self-titled debut ends up being a loose tour of the life story of bluegrass music, along with a few wonderful side quests, all backed by note-perfect musicianship.
If you set out to do a history of American roots and string music, you need to acknowledge AP Carter, and Mighty Poplar accomplishes that first thing with “A Distant Land to Roam.” The near-ancient Carter Family song leads off with Noam Pikelny’s (Punch Brothers) rapid-fire banjo picking. Marlin, as he does on most of the record, handles the lead vocals, playing the part of the itinerant musician leaving his family behind – “If on Earth we meet no more/May we meet at God’s right hand” – with simple, pretty harmonies from his new bandmates before giving way to Alex Hargreaves’ (Billy Strings) fiddle solo. The band next skips way ahead in time (hey, bluegrass ain’t linear) to Martha Scanlan’s “Up on the Divide,” which pits springtime in the country against destruction of the land – “The coal company man wants to eat up your coal/First he’ll swallow your cattle, then he’ll swallow your soul” – while making room for guitar/mandolin interplay between Marlin and Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers).
Some of the best listening on Mighty Poplar comes from the band’s not-quite-so-bluegrass selections. “North Country Blues” is a stirring rendition of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ tale of environmental and economic decay in a dying mining town – “It’s much cheaper down in the South American towns/Where the miners work for almost nothing.” It’s a song, quite honestly, that seems made for a string band, playing a style of music born from hard times, to remind us that decisions made on high have their deepest effect on those living from one paycheck to the next (especially when those paychecks stop coming). And the album concludes with a Biblical stunner of a Leonard Cohen cover. “Story of Isaac” is a musically warmer version of Cohen’s spare retelling of Abraham’s mythical near-sacrifice of his son. The alluring arrangement, though, doesn’t detract one bit from the lesson that Cohen intended for the ears of modern-day zealots – “You who build the altars now/To sacrifice these children/You must not do it anymore/A scheme is not a vision.” All that, wrapped up in some of the most gorgeous music you’ll hear this year, shows Mighty Poplar to be not a collective but a true band, eschewing individual pyrotechnics for the sake of the song.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Kicking Up Devil on a Holiday/Dr, Hecock’s Jig” – one of two instrumentals on the album, the first half is a slow burn which brings out Greg Garrison’s (Leftover Salmon) work on bass before heading to the dancefloor with a jig full of banjo/fiddle/guitar/mandolin interplay. True string band nirvana.
Mighty Poplar was produced by Mighty Poplar, recorded and mixed by Sean Sullivan and mastered by Reuben Cohen. Mighty Poplar is Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar), Chris Eldridge (guitar, vocals, mandolin), Greg Garrison (bass, vocals) and Noam Pikelny (banjo, vocals).
Go here to order Mighty Poplar (out March 31): https://kf-merch.com/collections/mighty-poplar
Check out tour dates here: https://www.mightypoplar.com/