Mighty Poplar: Mighty Poplar | ★★★★ | Free Dirt Records | Friday, Mar. 31
Kentucky bluegrass—the actual plant—grows best in the winter before blooming in May, right around when North Carolina’s poplar trees explode with showy, tulip-shaped flowers. So it’s fitting that new bluegrass group Mighty Poplar drops its self-titled debut just a few weeks ahead of that springtime flourish.
Mighty Poplar boasts one hell of a résumé: Andrew Marlin (one-half of Chapel Hill’s folk duo Watchhouse, formerly known as Mandolin Orange) recruited Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge (cofounders of country-classical powerhouse Punch Brothers), Greg Garrison (from jamgrass heroes Leftover Salmon), and Alex Hargreaves (a member of roots superstar Billy Strings’s band) to transform 10 American standards into a propulsive set of fiery interpretations.
Mighty Poplar’s power is squarely rooted in old-time Appalachian favorites like “Blackjack Davey” and “Little Joe,” which sizzle with foot-stomping energy. But other choices venture stylistically afield—and pull from more recent source material. “Up on the Divide” is a Mountain West springtime rejoice from Montana’s Martha Scanlan, while John Hartford’s rollicking “Let Him Go on Mama” links pre-war paddle-wheelers with hippie pot smokers and hesitant Nixon voters. Even somber tunes from Bob Dylan (“North Country Blues”) and Leonard Cohen (“Story of Isaac”) make appearances, though Mighty Poplar works hard to make each one a bit more celebratory.
But there’s no doubt where this supergroup’s superpowers lie. White-hot fiddle licks and mandolin riffs from Hargreaves and Marlin, respectively, shine on “Grey Eagle,” while heartfelt call-and-response lyrics accentuate Pikelny’s fluid banjo on “A Distant Land to Roam.” And the elegant interplay of Eldridge’s guitar and Garrison’s bass allows Marlin’s voice to shine on slower songs like “Lovin’ Babe.”
Mighty Poplar was recorded at the Tractor Shed, a rural studio outside Nashville, and the easy camaraderie shared by these five musicians is obvious from the beginning to the end of the album. As Marlin said in the album’s press release, “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.”
True heads will surely keep Mighty Poplar in heavy rotation, while live audiences will be in for a treat once this quintet starts touring in May—right alongside the bluegrass and poplar blooms. We say let it grow.
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