Dirk Powell – Family traditions
Dirk Powell is a rebel. He realized this early on, back in high school when most of his friends were listening to punk rock and spouting nonstop declarations of nonconformity. He knew that punk music was strong and reactionary, but it was also an image that was being sold.
“The ultimate rebellion to me was to go to something that was not commercial at all,” he says in his mishmash of Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana accents. “When I sat and listened to those old songs my grandfather was playing, I knew that was real nonconformity, to be listening to and playing music that wasn’t done for profit, but for pleasure, for being social.”
The songs his grandfather, James Clarence Hay, played with him as a child became even more important to Powell when he started recording his third solo album, Time Again, released in late February on Rounder Records. The album plays like a visit with Hay, punctuated by snippets of conversation and picking that were recorded in 1990, the year before his grandfather passed away.
Time Again is also a sort of history of Appalachian music, beginning with Hay lamenting his loss of memory regarding songs and ending with his urging for Powell to eat his cake and get something to drink, just like any other visit with a grandparent. But there is something much deeper in these spoken vignettes, a reminder that old-time music — despite spurts of popularity — is always in danger of being chipped away, since so much of it is passed down orally.
In many ways Time Again is also a celebration of the rebellious nature of old-time music. The album brings together the dark and the light, the fun and the misery, the lyricism and the all-about-the-music picking that makes traditional music such “a living thing,” as Powell repeatedly refers to it.
As a child, Powell was plagued by a pulsing sense of rebellion he didn’t quite understand. He was raised in and near Cleveland, Ohio, but always felt like a displaced person. “I knew that what I was really connected to was left back in Kentucky,” he says. “I was always looking for my place in the world and never really fit in until I started spending so much time with my pap-paw.”
Powell’s parents both came from Kentucky by way of the migration out of Appalachia when people went north to find work and/or education. As further proof that you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy, Powell longed for the mountains. So he spent as much time as possible with his maternal grandparents, who lived near the heart of Appalachia in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. Powell formed a bond with his grandfather through music, and together they played banjo, fiddle and guitar.
Before discovering that old-time music was the thing he loved best — and the perfect way not only to be different but also to find his place in the world — Powell had been playing piano and Baroque harpsichord. Although his parents divorced when he was very young, Powell spent equal time with his father, who taught at Oberlin College outside Cleveland, and his mother, who lived closer to the city.
“I was tiny when they split up and music saved me during that time,” Powell says. “It saved me, over and over.” Both parents encouraged his love for music; he was influenced by his father’s finger-style guitar playing and his mother’s piano playing.
“Even from the age of 8 or 9, I always had a sense that old was better; that’s why I loved classical so much,” he says. “By the time I was 12, I started to see that — for me — classical was all about preparing, practicing. You prepared for one recital that may or may not come and then you just started preparing again. There was never any play. The music was glorious, but it was rarely fun.”
Around age 12, he began to spend more time back in Kentucky, where he was constantly exposed to his grandfather’s picking. “It all just clicked. I heard that music and I found what I had been looking for,” he says. “And it was even more than that. Just watching my grandfather pick beans, smelling those beans cooking on the stove; being in that place informed me about the music. Things like that taught me where I came from, how my people lived, and why the notes of that music were clamoring to be let out.”
Right away, Powell knew the land was tucked away in the notes of the music. “Old-time fiddling moves up and down, in ridges like the land,” he explains, “whereas Cajun fiddling calls for a flatter movement, the way the land is flat.”
Powell believes that lineage plays a huge role in music. “I don’t believe lineage is absolutely necessary to being a good musician, but it sure helps,” he says. “It’s a mix of nature and nurture, but things really do reside in our blood.”
In a sort of awestruck voice, Powell relates how his 2-year-old daughter dreams of fiddling. “She’ll be fiddling away in her sleep — her arm moving back and forth as if she’s holding a bow, and she’ll mumble ‘fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.’ People can say that we’ve projected that on her, but we haven’t. It’s in her blood.”
It’s not only in Powell’s children’s blood (he also has a 16-week-old daughter), it’s coming at them from both sides. Powell is married to Christine Balfa, whose father, Dewey Balfa, almost single-handedly revitalized interest in Cajun music during the 1960s, particularly with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.