Throughout the course of bluegrass history, there have been different all-star configurations consisting of top flight players who came together to pay homage to their respective heroes. The 1980s brought us the Bluegrass Album Band. Other prominent groupings such as Longview and the Mashville Brigade would follow a similar path in the ensuing decades. Now in 2023, we’re introduced to Mighty Poplar, an ensemble consisting of five of this generation’s most accomplished instrumentalists. Rather than focus squarely on bluegrass, the band’s material ranges from various areas of the roots music spectrum.
The group consists of mandolinist Andrew Marlin, a member of the musical duo, Watchhouse, banjoist Noam Pikelny and guitarist Chris Eldridge, who are both members of the acclaimed Punch Brothers, bassist Greg Garrison, currently a member of Leftover Salmon, but also a founding member of the Punch Brothers, and fiddler Alex Hargreaves, who is a regular member of Billy Strings’ band. As one would expect from an aggregation of this caliber, the musicianship found on this self-titled debut is in an even greater musical stratosphere.
All ten songs on this project consist of particularly loose, but well-crafted arrangements. The opening track, A Distant Land To Roam, is one of a few different Carter Family songs on this recording. Unlike other renditions of this song, Mighty Poplar approaches it in more of an up-tempo fashion, with smooth harmony vocals from Marlin, Eldridge, and Garrison. Another of the Carter Family songs, Blackjack Davy, also features lively, well delivered lead singing by Marlin.
Up On The Divide is one of the newer compositions on this release. Written by Martha Scanlan, this is a compelling song about life as a cattle rancher.
Grey Eagle is one of two instrumentals that demonstrate the band’s technical prowess. This track in particular features stellar fiddling from Hargreaves. The other tune, Kicking Up the Devil on a Holiday/Dr. Hecock’s Jig contains excellent mandolin and guitar solos from Marlin and Eldridge.
North Country Blues comes from the repertoire of Bob Dylan, and is one of the most captivating performances on the entire recordings. Let Him Go On Mama was written by John Hartford, and first recorded by him on his album Mark Twang in 1976. Both tracks are excellent examples of how a band such as Mighty Poplar can take well-crafted songs and make them completely their own.
The closing track, Story of Isaac, comes from the pen of Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. With very light instrumental backing, Andrew Marlin delivers an incredible vocal performance bringing this project to a powerful and beautiful end.
Mighty Poplar’s debut release is not at all a rehash of earlier ideas by their heroes, but rather a collection that brings forth new ideas while tipping the hat to those that came before them. While the band has a similar mission to that of previous all-star recordings, they’re charting a new path by presenting material that encompasses the acoustic roots landscape.