This week, Mighty Popular, a recently formed bluegrass supergroup featuring Andrew Marlin from Watchhouse, Noam Pikelny, and Chris Eldridge from Punch Brothers, Greg Garrison of Leftover Salmon, and Alex Hargreaves, announced their debut album with a music video.
The self-titled record is set for release on March 31, 2023, via Free Dirt Records.
Watch ‘Up on the Divide’ by Might Popular
Inspired by the 1980s albums of The Bluegrass Album Band, Mighty Poplar was formed as a vehicle to explore their love of improvisation through foundational bluegrass.
As Eldridge, of Punch Brothers, said, “It’s an homage to where we came from, without it being a recreation of an earlier era.”
Gathered knee-to-knee in a rural converted tractor shed studio outside of Nashville, the collaborative 10-track album captures the fierce and playful energy of an all-night jam between old friends who just happen to be grandmasters of the music.
The songs run through the history of bluegrass from the earliest Appalachian string bands (“Grey Eagle”) to the more recent, “Up on the Divide,” from Montana bard Martha Scanlan and a reworking of Uncle Dave Macon’s “Lovin’ Babe” by songwriter Kristin Andreassen.
We grew up on those records,” Eldridge said.
Watch ‘Up on the Divide,’ by Martha Scanlan
“My love for the sound and feel of those Bluegrass Album Band records–the energy, the undeniable chemistry, the subtle virtuosity–led me to imagine what that might look like in our collective gumbo of today’s bluegrass,” says Garrison.“
Though Pikelny, Eldridge, and Garrison all knew each other from their early work with Punch Brothers, impromptu backstage jams with Marlin at festivals across the country were the key that unlocked the project.
A lifelong song collector, Marlin selected and sang lead on most of the songs here, bringing classics as well as deep cuts from greats like Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, John Hartford, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Norman Blake.
“It felt so special and effortless; it didn’t take work,” says Eldridge, “other than the work and effort we’ve put in the rest of our lives.”
“I’m convinced Alex Hargreaves only knows how to play the perfect notes at the perfect times,” muses Eldridge. Pikelny speaks highly about Marlin’s innate musicality: “We listen to a lot of Watchhouse at our house. Supporting a singer and songwriter of Andrew’s caliber is about the most rewarding thing I get to do, so I leaped at the opportunity to collaborate when Greg first pitched the idea for this project.”
Marlin talks up the other players’ instrumental virtuosity. “When I think about it from a player’s perspective, I didn’t feel like I belonged in this group; I haven’t spent my life trying to improve my chops. I’ve been more of a song gatherer,” a humble Marlin admits.
Each song was carefully selected; “Even in a karaoke bar these songs would stand up,” jokes Pikelny. Marlin worked to pick out songs that were also evocative of a time and specific geography.
“Each song feels like it was written from a very personal place,” Marlin says. “‘North Country Blues’ – you feel that from Dylan. You’re there outside the mill with him reminiscing about the glory days of the steel industry.”
One of the most surprising tracks on the album is Marlin’s eloquent and careful reimagination of Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac.”
Watch: Leonard Cohen performs ‘Story of Isaac‘
Marlin jokes that’s the spirit of bluegrass. “You take sad songs and make them sound a little happier, and you’ve got yourself a Stanley Brothers album all of a sudden.”
“A lot of first or second exploratory ideas made it onto the record, as opposed to having an idea being thrown out and having weeks of refining and tweaking. I love catching that initial energy and spark,” he said. “It means that things won’t always be squeaky clean, but I’ll take that lightning in a bottle over perfection.”