SPOTLIGHT: Mighty Poplar’s Chris Eldridge on Listening Past Perfection
Mighty Poplar (photo by Brian Carroll)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mighty Poplar is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for March 2023. Read more about the band and its debut, self-titled album in our interview, and watch an exclusive video performance of “Blackjack Davy” here. The album is out March 31 on Free Dirt Records.
I want to give you an assignment. It’s a good assignment, a LISTENING assignment. But first, let me give you a little background.
T Bone Burnett, who produced the Punch Brothers album The Phosphorescent Blues, had a great quote that I think about often. We were obsessing over getting something on tape that reflected our very specific idea of how a particular bit of music should sound when he said, “Perfection is a second-rate idea.” To me, that means whatever one’s platonic ideal of something might be, the idea is inherently limited in scope. It will never port cleanly into the real world, so you have to be prepared to embrace it as it is in the organic realm of texture and imperfection.
I’m writing this sitting at a wooden table at a coffee shop in Nashville, but if I were to imagine a wood table like this in the abstract, there is no way I could conjure anything close to the actual, nuanced reality that sits before me. Running my fingertips across the surface of the table, with all of its beautiful, complex, chaotic, organic fibers and patterns in the wood, my tactile experience is beyond the realm of words, beyond the realm of my imagination. It is both mundane and worthy of my attention as offering a unique, vivid experience if I take the time to notice it. It is real.
Good music played by human beings is similar. One of the all-time great, universally beloved bluegrass records is Manzanita by The Tony Rice Unit. The songs are great, the musicians are creative and fiery, and the overall vibe is loose and joyful. There are so many records that check the boxes of having a great groove, great singing, great solos, and great songs, but to me what makes Manzanita so timeless and worth repeated listening is that it checks those boxes, but it also invites you to zoom in and follow the various threads that the musicians are unspooling individually and together as the songs unfold.
The first song, “Old Train,” abounds with joyful interactions that ostensibly are taking place in the background but are there for us to enjoy if we are paying attention. (Now would be a good time to pull “Old Train” up on the streaming service of your choice.) Notice the band interplay during Ricky Skaggs’ fiddle solo at around 1:05. A few seconds after the fiddle starts playing, Tony plays a series of extroverted offbeat bass runs on the guitar that Sam Bush instantly responds to with an extroverted syncopation of his own. Skaggs then seems to respond to Sam and Tony’s gestures by doubling down hard on a 2-note syncopation that he defiantly repeats with slides for a couple of seconds. Sam picks up on Skaggs’ new syncopation and plays a variation on it but with ascending notes before Tony finally brings the volleys to a close with a strong G run on guitar. That whole series of exchanges lasts maybe 5 seconds before the fiddle solo carries on, but it’s a moment.
What makes it a moment is that we hear the joy of this group of friends — who are all master musicians — playing and being playful together. We hear the people behind the notes. It’s that feeling — that humanity — that got encoded on Manzanita that makes it so much more than a well-executed collection of good songs. The edges are a little rough at times relative to a lot of music made in the Pro Tools era, but the Manzanita band’s fluctuations in timing and groove are so much more interesting than “perfect” would have been. To be clear, there are parts of this record that are unbelievable in how tight and clean they are. But it’s the balance between the musicians taking the music seriously, but not so seriously that they lose the joy of playing music with each other, that makes Manzanita such a classic. It all sounds like a big musical trust fall — people going for it and their fellow musicians having their backs.
Listening to duos can be a great entry point into listening to this kind of interplay because the space is so open and there are a limited number of voices involved. Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall is a favorite duo album of mine. It sits solidly in the realm of jazz, an entire music that is built around the idea of interplay between musicians with strong identities. The whole record is gorgeous, but I think the first song, “My Funny Valentine,” provides a great introduction into the idea of listening to a musical conversation.
But musicians don’t have to be “improvising” per se to be locked into a moment with each other. Listen to “Lookout Joe” on Neil Young’s incredible album, Tonight’s the Night. What a track! The whole band is loose and wild and it feels like anything could happen at any moment, but they are also completely of one mind, entwined around the unfolding of the song. Or along somewhat similar lines, check out the high-wire intensity that the whole band brings on James Brown’s record, Love Power Peace. That album is just exploding with human energy in the most incredible way!
So my assignment for you is this. Sit down with a good record that was recorded live by real people and I want you to listen beyond the top layer of the music. Listen into the moment that got captured on tape. Listen for the people — the actual human beings — making the music. Listen for the interplay. Listen to how they are (hopefully!) leaving it all out on the field. And listen to the beauty of human expression, in all of its perfect imperfection.
A few good records to check out for this:
Manzanita – The Tony Rice Unit
Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan
The Real Folk Blues – Muddy Waters
Tonight’s the Night – Neil Young
Mothership Connection – Parliament Funkadelic
And, if I may, Mighty Poplar – Mighty Poplar