—Article by David Menconi
For most of its existence, the bluegrass-flavored Americana group Mipso has had a steady upward trajectory. Since forming on-campus at UNC-Chapel Hill about a decade ago, Mipso cultivated a following that grew locally, regionally and nationally. They became a top draw on the live circuit, and also regulars in the top-10 of Billboard’s bluegrass album-sales chart – where they reached No. 1 for the first time with 2015’s Old Time Reverie.
Despite outward appearances, however, recent years found the quartet of Joseph Terrell, Libby Rodenbough, Jacob Sharp, and Wood Robinson questioning Mipso’s continued existence. Even though their 2018 album Edges Run also hit the top of the bluegrass chart, making it involved enough turmoil that they actually contemplated breaking up.
“It was a trying time,” says bassist/vocalist Robinson. “We were all pretty unhappy at that point, after making that record in the dead of winter in Eugene, Oregon, right when the Trump administration was being sworn in. And we’d been together eight years, touring relentlessly. It was like a marriage where we had to figure out a way to renew vows, because we realized we did not even know who we were as individuals anymore. So we had to decide: do we want to continue doing this? Fortunately, we did.”
A few years down the road, things are much better in Mipso’s world – in some ways, better than they’ve ever been. After making the decision to continue, the group signed with Rounder Records, a prestigious folk-label home to Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck and numerous other Americana legends. Rounder released the group’s fifth and latest album Mipso this fall.
“Mipso is an incredibly talented group with huge ambitions of making great music that connects with people,” says Rounder president John Strohm. “We think they can grow into something where the group exceeds the sum of the parts, which is exactly what you look for when signing talent. Their vocal blend is a great thing. That’s the secret sauce of a lot of great groups, from The Band on out, a distinctive vocal blend that’s their most unique element.”
Five records into a career, an eponymously titled album implies a reset, which is how Mipso’s members seem to view their new album. It has the group’s familiar easy-going, amiable groove and very fine ensemble playing, with Terrell and Rodenbough’s warm, distinctive voices out front. It’s easily Mipso’s most confident, accomplished album.
“This was the most fun we’ve ever had making a record and I think it shows,” says Robinson. “There’s more balance, less willful introspection. It feels very much like a summer record to us. We had a great time recording it and were able to be patient, let it stew before pushing on it too hard. There was no reason to push it through too soon, so we didn’t.”
About the only downer detail for Mipso at the moment is the same thing plaguing every band nowadays, the virus pandemic that has made live in-person shows impossible. They’ve been trying to put the time off the road to good use while releasing a series of videos, keeping fingers crossed that they’ll be able to return to stages sometime in 2021.
“All things considered, we’re feeling pretty good,” Robinson says. “Strangely enough, even though I’ve not seen much of my band mates the last nine months, I feel closer to them than I ever have before. Part of that is absence making the heart grow fonder, but there’s been some positive things about the break. We played 90 shows last year, 130 the previous year and 160 the year before that. At a certain point, we really did get kind of tired of each other. But you get wake-up calls that remind you why you like each other and what you do together. A little time away from each other let us all remember who we are. And we’re really proud of this record.”