Mighty Poplar - Saxapahaw, NC 4/14/2024

Grammy nominated bluegrass super group Mighty Poplar visited the Haw River Ballroom to put their firebrand talents on display.

Mighty Poplar performed at The Haw River Ballroom on Sunday, April 14th for their tour closing show in front of a nearly sold out crowd. Bluegrass music born in Appalachia, out of a marriage between old time and mountain music, which has been referred to as "mountain music in overdrive."  While I am not sure who to attribute that quote to, it would be a fair guess that Raymond Fairchild, an early banjo player and moon-shiner, also a native of Haywood County, NC had something to do with it.  Fairchild is attributed to the following quote about the origins of this beloved musical genre 

"Mountain music is what this country was founded on. That's the only pleasure they really had back then," he said. "Most of them had to make their own instruments. That was their entertainment. And then Bill Monroe came along and put it in overdrive."

According to most experts, the term "Bluegrass Music" was adopted some time in the mid to late 1950's, most likely taken from the band formed in 1939, by Bill Monroe,  the "Bluegrass Boys."  Monroe is considered to be the father of bluegrass music by most musicians today. A blend of old time, gospel, early country music and blues.  Over time, the genre of music has evolved with new influences with a fusion from a variety of sources, including jazz, rock, progressive bluegrass (new grass) and the tempo of this music has also increased to where songs now vary between  60 to over 150 beats per minute. 

Mighty Poplar is a bluegrass super group, formed out of a passion for this music and it's traditions and a relationship that formed between musicians playing in some of the top tier bands in modern music. While the players in this bluegrass super group come from very popular bands themselves, most of the music that they are known for would be not be considered bluegrass. Today the genre, much like folk and country music, is seeing it's boundaries pushed further than ever as artists who grew up influenced by traditional sounds are carrying the music in new directions. 

As a five piece band, Mighty Poplar draws from the incredible talents of guitarist,  Chris  "Critter" Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and bass player Greg Garrison. The three of them played together in the wildly popular group, The Punch Brothers. Garrison is now playing bass with Leftover Salmon. The fiddle player for the band, Alex Hargreaves, is currently out touring with Billy Strings.  Out in front singing lead vocals and playing the mandolin is Andrew Marlin, from the band Watchouse, (formerly known as Mandolin Orange).  

The formation of this super group was comparable to the slow drip of moisture in a cavern that over time creates stalactites. All of the members have been touring in bands for decades and as they were all crisscrossing the country from time to time they would inevitably cross paths. In fact, the group has some origin history in tiny Saxapahaw, NC. After a Leftover Salmon show a few years back there was a jam session nearby where Garrison and Marlin played bluegrass together for the first time.Whenever possible some of the members that ended up forming the band,  would find some time to play together and stronger relationships formed after years of seeing of jamming around festival campfires, or warming up backstage

While it's easy to form ideas about what a glamorous life on the road as a musician might be like, but the truth is its just exhausting and you are rarely in one place long and always moving on. It's no Festival Express where everyone is together on a train jamming with each other. Eventually the idea of getting those friends together while you're away from your tours, to try to capture some of that magic that happens when you are jamming with others outside of your normal circle seems like just a dream.  The realities of normal touring hundreds of nights a year, especially when you live in different parts of the country and are never home for too long, make that dream seem impossible. But in this case, fate seemed to intervene. 

Along comes the Global Pandemic of Covid-19, it shut down most of the country. Suddenly there were no more tours and this dream to finally gather together and see what magic could be created with a new project that seemed impossible would become a reality.  Musicians found themselves with too much time on their hands and this project moved forward when they were able to start making actual plans to form an isolation pod of the musicians in Nashville. They setup a engineer for a 3 day recording session.

First they had a lot of conversations about choosing the songs to play at the session. Once that was done they all had time to practicing the standards that they chose to play.  Next was ironing out all the details, such as the self quarantines before they actually gathered together.  Even though all of the members had never all played together in the past, the session went incredibly well.

The recordings that they had produced exceeded their expectations, so much so that they were hesitant to take it further.  It actually took a couple of years before they were ready to take what came out of that session, further. Their first worries were about somehow ruining what they had created by trying to mix it down and master it to completion  Eventually after weighing their options, the consensus came to be that the music that they created was just too good to hold on to and decided that they needed to release it. The rest is history at this point, what started as a fun side project among friends had turned into a bluegrass album band. 

Once the record was released, in 2023 the band members were already looking for an excuse to get together again. They had already been looking at another batch of songs to take back into the studio before even having a chance to setup some tour dates and play the first record live. And they were planning some shows to promote the release. With a super group like this one, the biggest problem with trying to setup any kind of tour even one with a brief number of dates is finding the time for all of these musicians to step away from their own bands busy schedules

In 2023,even with just a few select show dates,  they faced the issue where they needed to arrange for a stand in fiddle player for a few of the shows, because Hargreaves was tied up with Billy Stings shows, a band that easily plays over a hundred shows per year. 

For example at their 2023 IBMA performance, just like the show I attended for this review at the Haw River Ballroom, Hargreaves who played on the record, was once again unable to attend, so the band had arranged for stand in fiddle player, Shad Cobb, who's played fiddle since he was 13 and later moved to Nashville and has played with The Osbourne Brothers, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle.  

Even without all the original players at this show, it was just a masterclass of bluegrass and traditional music. The highlights are just too numerous to mention here, with the musicians comfortably switching between front man and side man roles effortlessly. They opened up the show with a song by Clarence White and Doc Watson, "Lonesome Road Blues" followed by the traditional "Kicking Up The Devil On A Holday" into " Dr. Hecock's Jig"  next there was the band's interpretation of The Carter Family's "Distant Land to Roam"  then they transitioned over to a more modern song, "Up On The Divide" written  by Martha Scanlan.  The old time instrumental tune, "Grey Eagle"  gave the band a chance to really show off when the fiddle, mandolin and guitar players each got their solo spotlights. 

Bob Dylan's song "Black Jack Davy" made an appearance next and later in the set was another Dylan classic, "North Country Blues."  The night was just filled with wonderful music. Another highlight of the night for me was when the band played a favorite John Hartford song, that references working on board Mississippi riverboats, moonshine and smoking marijuanna, "Let Him Go On Mama"

Fortunately for all of us, two things worked in our favor. First the band allows recordings of their performances and a good friend of HGMN, Robbie Dunn, was at the show that night and was able to record it and now we can all stream his recording that is uploaded to the Live Music Archive online. This site is a great public resource that is easily searchable.  

Overall, it was a wonderful night in one of my favorite venues for live music and it was captured for us to enjoy!  As well as some wonderful photos from that night in the gallery below. 

Words by:    Jerry Friend

Photos by:     Willa Stein