Chris Eldridge Revisits His Bluegrass Roots with Mighty Poplar

“Critter” chats about his bluegrass travels, lessons learned from Tony Rice, and the discovery of his holy grail guitar.
Mighty Poplar: Alex Hargreaves, Greg Garrison, Chris Eldridge (with 1937 Martin D-28), Noam Pikelny, and Andrew Marlin, Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Mighty Poplar: Alex Hargreaves, Greg Garrison, Chris Eldridge (with 1937 Martin D-28), Noam Pikelny, and Andrew Marlin, Photo: Jay Blakesberg

In the fall of 2020, with most live music and touring on hold, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and a few musician friends hatched a plan to form a little pod in Nashville and record some straight-ahead bluegrass. The group included some of the brightest lights in progressive acoustic music: Eldridge and Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny; multi-instrumentalist Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse on mandolin; bassist Greg Garrison of Leftover Salmon (also an original Punch Brother); and Alex Hargreaves, fiddler with Billy Strings

The idea, Eldridge says, was not so much to start a band or advance careers but just to reconnect with music and each other. “Those guys, for a certain approach to bluegrass, they’re my dream team,” he says. “You couldn’t ask for any better, from my perspective. It was so joyful just to get to be there.”

The five musicians had never played a note together as a unit, but after one afternoon of rehearsal, they started recording—and soon had an album’s worth of songs in the can. As their other bands and projects picked up again, though, the tracks sat on the shelf for several years, before finally being released in 2023 under the sly moniker Mighty Poplar. And then this new bluegrass supergroup begin hitting stages around the country.

It’s no surprise to hear Eldridge in a bluegrass setting. He grew up steeped in the music—both his parents played banjo, and his father, Ben Eldridge, was a founding member of the seminal bluegrass band the Seldom Scene. Eldridge’s biggest guitar inspiration and mentor, too, is bluegrass legend Tony Rice. But much of the music that Eldridge has played over the last 15 or so years has ventured far from conventional bluegrass. Punch Brothers, led by mandolin maestro Chris Thile, uses a bluegrass instrumental lineup but often sounds more like a mash-up of a modern chamber group and alt-rock band. And Eldridge’s periodic guitar duo with Julian Lage draws as much from jazz and the Great American Songbook as from roots music.

With Mighty Poplar gearing up for more touring in 2024, I reached out to Eldridge to chat about his bluegrass travels, lessons learned from Tony Rice, and the discovery of his holy grail guitar.

In Punch Brothers and other projects, you’ve played a lot of music with very complex harmonies and rhythms. So with Mighty Poplar, what has it felt like to focus on three- or four-chord simple songs? 

Oh, it feels great. The side of me as a musician that loves bluegrass has always informed everything I’ve ever done, and it will continue to inform everything I ever do, because it’s just so a part of me. 

When I was a kid, I didn’t want to love bluegrass. You know, my mom and dad both played banjo, so I didn’t want to play the banjo certainly. I didn’t want anything to do with bluegrass. I wanted to play rock ’n’ roll, jazz, and all these other things. But the plain fact is, [bluegrass] is woven into my DNA. This music doesn’t feel like a departure—it feels like coming home. Mighty Poplar is really connected to the warm spirit of the music of my youth.


Do you think of bluegrass more in terms of the spirit of the music than its harmonic or melodic vocabulary? 

Yeah, I actually think I do. Mighty Poplar feels spiritually connected to the original Seldom Scene, the band that had John Starling, Mike Auldridge, John Duffey, Tom Gray, and my dad. 

Also Tony Rice was my mentor, and he was and will always remain, in a very meaningful way, probably my biggest hero. And so Mighty Poplar provides an opportunity for me to try and play the best rhythm guitar that I can play. 

Tony Rice was known as a brilliant lead player, but he often talked about rhythm as the most rewarding part of playing. Do you feel similarly? 

You know, there was a period of a couple of years where we were hanging together and talking on the phone all the time, and he really took me under his wing. I went and stayed at his house for a week, and we never once played guitars together. We listened to music and talked about music, and we talked about what it is to be a musician. 

At that point, I was probably 19 years old and wanted to be an incredible virtuoso. All my heroes were virtuosos, playing all this crazy cool stuff, including Tony, you know. What we got into was just, why are you doing this, or what does it mean to be a great musician? We talked about this idea that your whole job as a musician can be boiled down to something very, very simple. This is a direct quote from Tony. He said, “Collaborate with your fellow musicians to make a sound that’s pleasing to the ear.” 

It really can be that simple, but I think a lot of times we forget that—especially if you’re young and trying to make your mark and play crazy stuff. Tony had this beautiful way of breaking it down and saying, “Well, that’s making it in service of you. But really, where it’s at is just being in service of music. Make something beautiful with other people. Make something that’s going to get [listeners] to slow down and step out of their daily life and lose themselves.” That’s a very generous way to go about making music, and I feel like that’s part of why Tony was so great. I know I’m going on a tangent here, but I think that’s one of the central truths that he saw so clearly, and that he wanted me to receive. 

So that philosophy leads you to focus more on the ensemble feel?

In Mighty Poplar, the technical concerns aren’t as intense. There’s some stuff in Punch Brothers, where, especially when we’re first learning it, you’re hanging on for dear life, having to count in crazy time signatures with crazy syncopations overlaid on top, with harmonies like shifting sands. It’s just wild. Ideally, eventually, you get to a place where you can just be there and be calm and be present for the music. But with Mighty Poplar, the music is really simple. The nature of that music gives you an invitation to go to this other place where it’s like, I’m going to be of service. 

To dig a little more into the subject of rhythm, if you’re playing a classic bluegrass progression—a simple I, IV, V—what are some of the keys to driving the rhythm and locking in with the other instruments?

Well, like anything good, it’s simple and it’s deep. But I think there are a bunch of different factors you can look at.


The first thing I would say, if I were giving advice, is just to listen to the great rhythm guitar players. I start with Tony Rice. To me, Tony is hands down the greatest bluegrass rhythm guitar player that ever lived. But you can go to Tony’s forbears, like Jimmy Martin, who had this steady but really driving kind of strummy motion in the right hand, where he was almost subdividing things but you still had the big beat coming through. 

Listen to Clarence White, who was so fearless in how he approached playing guitar. He wasn’t necessarily playing just a G, C, and D right on the beat. He might play a run that would anticipate a downbeat by a 16th note or three 16th notes. He would play with syncopation like it was a toy, but he was very in the pocket—and you can hear the effect his syncopation has kind of rippling through the band. It’s the musical equivalent of being like: Alright, look alive, everybody. 

Or you have Del McCoury playing such groovy good rhythm guitar, with the mightiest G run that you could ever want to hear. He just lifts the guitar up into the microphone and plays the G run, and it thunders across the hillside if you’re at a festival. It’s amazing. 

So anyway, listening to all these great exemplars of bluegrass rhythm guitar, just having that sound in your ear, actually paying attention to it: that’s the most important thing. 

In a bluegrass band the instruments have pretty well-defined roles in holding down the rhythm.

We can stereotype the way a bluegrass band plays rhythm. You know, if you’re in four, the bass might be playing on beats 1 and 3, and a mandolin might be chopping on 2 and 4. And right there you’ve got beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 well covered. A lot of times, that setup is going to be pretty true. 

But then bluegrass rhythm guitar can really defy stereotypes. The guitar is able to move a little bit. You can accentuate the 1 sometimes; understanding what 1 feels like is really important. Have a good understanding of what the backbeats feel like. You can also choose to accentuate things like a mandolin. 

As a rhythm guitar player you actually have a lot of power, and that’s part of why Tony was so influential. He played very dynamically, both in terms of the actual loud/soft dynamics and also where he chose to accent things in a rhythmic grouping. He would move around dynamically. He wasn’t really locked into a pattern at all. 

In terms of rhythm, the relationship of guitar with mandolin is really close. Playing with Chris Thile must feel very unlike playing with Andrew Marlin. 


Totally. The feel between those two guys is very, very different. I love playing with both of them. You know, with Thile, there’s a grid. It’s not like a computer grid—it’s an organic grid, but it’s still a grid. And with Andrew it feels a lot more open. But in their own ways, they both have incredible rhythmic integrity. 

Does playing in a more traditional context in Mighty Poplar affect what you’re looking for in your instrument, or maybe your choice of guitar? 

I’m not sure how I would have answered that two years ago. But recently I got a guitar that’s my lifer guitar. It’s like I’m done searching. I’ve found the one for me. 

It’s a 1937 D-28, actually the first D-28 that Martin made in 1937, and it’s a really special instrument that can do it all. It’s just awesome in the bluegrass band—it does that D-28 thing of filling out the lower mids. I never was interested in loud, powerful guitars, but this one is quite loud and quite powerful, which turns out for me is nice. You know, players like Billy Strings or Trey Hensley, they touch the guitar with a lot more aggression than I do. So for me to have an instrument that’s really strong is a great balancing thing. 

But also this instrument has unbelievable nuance. You can render really dense, crazy chords. It just sings beautifully, like on the high string up at the tenth fret. So at this point, I just want to play that guitar on everything. I’ve got a bunch of guitars, and I haven’t really played anything else since I got this D-28. It’s my one true love.


What He Plays

Chris Eldridge plays a 1937 Martin D-28 strung with D’Addario nickel bronze or phosphor bronze mediums (.013—.056). He uses BlueChip TP48 and, lately, Apollo flatpicks, and an Elliott capo. 

Onstage, Eldridge’s bands have been experimenting with miking approaches. Punch Brothers has often played around a single Neumann U 89. The band has also employed Neumann’s recently introduced MCM 114 clip-on mics.

Mighty Poplar has performed around a single mic and with individual mics on stands for every instrument. During the band’s fall 2023 tour, they used a U 89 with two MCM 114s, all attached to the same stand, allowing the players to step up to the MCM 114s for a close sound. They also have used Neumann KM 84s on stands close to a U 89—a setup that Eldridge says might be optimal. —JPR

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *