By Pat Moran | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
As the band’s moniker suggests, Mighty Poplar boasts a sturdy roots pedigree. Comprised of Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse, Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers, bassist Greg Garrison of Leftover Salmon, and Billy Strings’ fiddler Alex Hargreaves, this bluegrass supergroup meets fan expectations with supple, intuitive playing and an inspired choice of covers, including traditional chestnuts as well as certified classics by Bob Dylan, John Hartford, A.P. Carter, and Leonard Cohen.
The band sprints out of the gate on its self-titled debut album with an incendiary performance of Carter’s “A Distant Land to Roam.” Marlin, who sings lead on most of the tunes here, gives a subtle interpretation of the bittersweet emotions embodied by the high-country lament, as Hargreaves’ sweeping fiddle tangles with Pikelny’s percolating banjo. In true bluegrass fashion, the bandmates tag team a round-robin of overlapping elastic solos on the instrumental “Grey Eagle.” Hargreaves’ cross-stitch fiddle passes the baton to Eldridge’s mandolin, which in turn tosses the hot potato to Pikelny’s nimble plucking on his banjo.
Such swift instrumental firepower is expected from this crew, but Mighty Poplar is even stronger when it defies virtuoso expectations. The band enhances the emotional punch of the traditional “Lovin Babe” by easing up on the accelerator and delivering breathtaking solos. Here Martin’s harp-like mandolin and Eldridge’s plangent, gently strummed guitar subtly bolster the tune’s delicate yet tragic story. While Hartford’s lackadaisical ditty “Let Him Go on Mama” benefits from expected playful touches like Hargreaves’ quizzical fiddle, Mighty Poplar counters expectations with a madrigal-delicate arrangement of Dylan’s stark “North Country Blues.” Here, the ensemble strips away the original’s spare Appalachian textures to uncover the song’s—and by extension American traditional music’s—roots in lilting yet indomitable British folk.