Dirk Powell – Family traditions
After wandering the mountains and settling for a while in North Carolina, where he worked the traditional music circuit, Powell happened upon the Balfa Family at the Washington, D.C., Folklife Festival in 1985. He was drawn to the Balfa Brothers by their music, but a young woman playing the triangle quickly caught his eye. This was the first time he saw Christine, and he was immediately impressed by someone who hoped to carry on her family’s musical tradition, just as he did.
Six years later, Powell and Balfa started dating. Powell would drive from Maryland to Louisiana to see her, often steering with his knees so he could practice the newest instrument he had been turned on to, the accordion.
Powell formed a deep bond with his father-in-law. “I could actually see and feel where Dewey was coming from,” he says. “He played from such a deep place; his music had passion and emotion that was sometimes overwhelming.”
His wife was also a major influence on the new ways he was looking at music. “I had always loved Cajun music, but after I met Christine, my interest went way up,” he says with a gentle laugh. Powell is prone to ending his sentences with short, soft laughs that seem somewhat self-deprecating. The laugh is informative: In its curled edges, one realizes Powell is a complex person, eager to please but also firmly rooted in his own beliefs. It is a laugh of both great self-confidence and comfortable politeness.
After Dewey Balfa died in 1992, Powell and Christine, along with longtime family friend Kevin Wimmer and Christine’s sister Nedla Balfa, formed a band called Balfa Toujours that became one of the most popular Cajun groups in the country. “Playing with Balfa Toujours and being a part of the Balfa family definitely took my playing to a higher level,” Powell says. They toured the world for about ten years before settling down in Louisiana and having their first child.
During his tenure with Balfa Toujours, Powell was also playing music with the likes of Tim O’Brien and Tony Furtado, as well as cutting solo records for Rounder (If I Go Ten Thousand Miles in 1996, and Hand Me Down in 1999). That first record led to what would become a lucrative career in film work.
This time, Powell’s quiet laugh precedes the story. “That’s the case of the best record I never sold,” he says. It seems a record producer was scouting the bins at Tower Records in Manhattan looking for traditional musicians who might supply good music for an Ang Lee movie set during the Civil War called Ride With The Devil. “He had a whole armload of CDs, but when he got up to the counter he noticed that someone had thrown a CD down in the bin near the register. Apparently they had been about to buy it and decided not to. He looked at it, saw my picture on there and thought, ‘Hey, that guy’s holding a fiddle,’ so he added it to his stack and bought it.” Shortly thereafter, Powell got the call to play fiddle and banjo for the film. Its soundtrack included “What’s Simple Is True”, a song recorded with Jewel that played over the end credits.
Powell also scored the classic documentary Stranger With A Camera, the story of a Canadian photographer who is murdered while documenting Appalachian Kentucky, and worked with director Spike Lee on the soundtrack of Bamboozled. His music was also featured in The Brothers McMullen, Stevie, Coastlines, and the stage musical Riverdance. He recently joined forces with rapper/producer Danja Mowf to work on an Appalshop documentary called From The Holler To The Hood, about Appalachian prisons.
In 1997, Powell realized that he not only liked scoring movies, but also had a desire to make “companion music” for literature as well. He was profoundly moved by Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel Cold Mountain and was struck by Frazier’s use of old-time music throughout the book. He approached his old friend Tim O’Brien, who calls Powell “a soul mate,” about putting together an album of the music used in the novel. O’Brien had been thinking the same thing, and they enlisted North Carolina banjoist John Hermann to help them with the project. The result was Songs From The Mountain.
“Lots of people had approached Frazier about doing such a project, but he only gave us his blessing, and after some legal wrangling we were able to put the album out,” Powell says. The recording, originally released in 1999 on O’Brien’s Howdy Skies label, received new attention (and a new release from Sugar Hill Records) upon the release of the Cold Mountain film in 2003.
When the official soundtrack of the movie, produced by T Bone Burnett, was released, some traditionalist fans were vocal in their belief that Songs From The Mountain was a far superior tribute to the spirit of the book. This might seem flattering to Powell until one takes into account that he was very much involved with the soundtrack and filming of the motion picture. “Songs From The Mountain is more a companion to the novel, while the soundtrack is much more exclusive to the movie, so we had a little more freedom in what we could do with traditional music,” he says.
Powell plays banjo on six of the soundtrack’s cuts and is featured, along with Stuart Duncan, on one of the highlights, “Ruby With The Eyes That Sparkle”. The film’s director, Anthony Minghella, also asked that Powell be flown to Romania to be on set during some of the pivotal scenes. He played on the set and offered suggestions on how the actors portraying musicians would react to their instruments and compositions.
“Minghella is a genius and is unusual in that he always starts the film process with choosing music,” Powell says, explaining that the director started the production with about 300 traditional songs that he pared down to 20 tunes. “That’s one of the most important things to him, since he is also a musician.”