It’s an established fact that North Carolina is a breeding ground for bluegrass music with an undeniable Southern charm. The Chapel Hill four-piece Mipso are a band of musicians that have taken note of their Appalachian roots and are now sharing that heritage all over the country and beyond. They are scheduled to play Thalian Hall this Saturday, March 28.
Mipso started out like many bands in this day and age: A few university students with mutual interests and tastes crossed paths, which resulted in a fun and spastic part-time college band. Their fanbase consisted entirely of friends and devoted family. Four university students met by fate and at the strike of the first chord, heard lightning and felt the low bellow of thunder. Or maybe it was just that churning in their gut confirming that they were on to something. With obvious chemistry, rapid success soon followed.
Jacob Sharp (mandolin), Wood Robinson (upright bass) and Joseph Terrell (guitar) formed The Mipso Trio in 2011. Violinist Libby Rodenbough officially joined in 2014, but she’s played alongside Mipso since their inception and appears on both releases, “Long, Long Gone” (2012) and “Dark Holler Pop” (2013). Word quickly spread about Mipso, wherein they sold out multiple shows at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle and even had Grammy-award winning bluegrass giants Steep Canyon Rangers and David Holt play in support of their “Dark Hollar Pop” release show.
To add a cherry on top, Sharp, Robinson and Terrell all had the opportunity to tour Japan in 2014. The trip resulted in a 15-minute Vimeo documentary created by Jon Kasbe, which became a Vimeo staff pick. The film showcases the band playing in various venues for curious Japanese audiences, taking lots of photos, and gorging on sushi and sake.
Not all of Mipso’s members grew up with direct exposure to bluegrass, though. “I actually discovered traditional music via stuff from the ‘60s folk revival,” Rodenbough says. “It was very popular at this folk music school I attended in Chicago.”
During the infantile stages of Mipso, Rodenbough took a year off school to live in Chicago. She took classes at Old Town School of Folk Music, an institution that offers music to children, teens and adults. “It all seemed to coincide beautifully, so I took the leap [and intended] to stay for two months,” Rodenbough tells. “But then I fell in love with the whole experience.”
Rodenbough recalls her experiences with classical piano and violin, neither of which ever appealed to her as a child. “These folk music jams were entirely geared toward beginners and usually consisted of several hours worth of two- and three-chord songs,” she says. “I found myself all of a sudden in this bizarre foreign environment where I got to make up all the notes. It was thrilling and terrifying and it was sort of my first step toward where I’ve ended up these days, playing music for a living.”
“We are all from different musical backgrounds,” Rodenbough continues. “Classical, jazz, a little rock-n-roll, a little jam band-dom. We are all from NC, though, and so we all grew up exposed to traditional Southern American music to some degree. Joseph’s family plays bluegrass, so that’s where he got the bug, and he kind of passed it on to the rest of us.”
One aspect of Mipso and modern bluegrass/Americana bands in general is the relevancy factor of the music. While they maintain the age-old traditions that any elitist demands, the music also leaps past the confining borders of genre, and ventures deeper into poppy melodies, chord progressions and culturally relevant lyrics.
“A Couple Acres Greener” off 2013’s “Dark Hollar Pop” is a perfect example. The opening guitar progression will immediately bring to mind a dozen pop songs from the ‘90s and early aughts. However, Sharp, Terrell and Robinson’s three-part harmonies and melodic vocal leads are what set it apart. Tracks like “Red Eye to Raleigh” have a definite country twang and an easy-going tempo that make for a pleasant listen. Rodenbough’s violin leads are a beautiful accompaniment to the song as well, and add an extra harmony and raspy fiddle timbre that is so intrinsic and essential to bluegrass and country music.
“We’re grateful that, so far at least, listeners to this kind of music haven’t held us to terribly specific aesthetic and musical formulas,” Rodenbough says. “We feel free to make our own original music, drawing from various traditions of American string bands in ways that speak to us rather than carry some burden as exemplars of a genre.”
Mipso truly embraces the genre, which is part of their charm. The music lends itself to young and mature audiences of bluegrass. “A lot of times we get people who know a lot about bluegrass or the contemporary Americana world,” Rodenbough details. “But other times there are folks who might not have thought of themselves as fans of acoustic music. Both kinds are great.”
Future plans for the band are not confirmed, except that they have recently recorded a new full-length, which will be released soon. “The producer on the upcoming album is Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange,” Rodenbough informs. “He’s steadily taking over the world of acoustic music, and we’re trying to hang with him as long as we can.”
Folks can get down to Mipso’s Southern-drenched stylings this Saturday.