Dirk Powell – Family traditions
Powell’s best experience on the set was during the epic filming of the Battle of the Crater. He was brought in to establish the mood and played several laments and tunes from the era. “I would play right up to when he’d call action and it was very moving, having all that in front of me as I played.” The film’s Oscar-nominated star, Jude Law, later said that the highlight of the filming was witnessing Powell playing before the scene. “He told me that he was very moved by the music, and I appreciated that, because I think he’s a very talented man,” Powell says.
Fresh off his experience on the film, Powell began to record Time Again on his property in Parks, Louisiana. His studio is a cypress structure that was built in the 1830s and offers the “atmosphere that I’m looking to bring to my music,” Powell says.
He decided early on that he would use the recordings he had made of his grandfather talking and picking. “My pap-paw is there to remind people of the connection to the past,” he explains. “One of the things that’s wrong with this country is that we’re always looking forward, never looking back. In some way that negates or devalues the past. Americans think the past doesn’t matter. And they couldn’t be more wrong.”
Powell is fascinated by American culture and the way the nation reacts to its history. “On one hand, Americans are obsessed with genealogy; we’re desperately trying to find our roots,” he observes. “But on the other hand, we’re taught that we have to leave the past behind and go forward.”
Even Powell’s grandfather fell victim to the consumerism and technological advances of the nation, as expressed in the opening track, wherein Hay says, “Lord, I used to know I guess 150 songsaI picked it up and started to play the other night and something or other come on the television.”
The first song on the album is one of only two compositions written by Powell, and it’s also his favorite cut. “Waterbound” is about being stuck “on a stranger’s shoreawith nowhere to go,” and it’s easy to see why Powell relates to its theme of displacement. After all, he spent his childhood feeling this way, and he knows that most lovers of traditional music still feel somewhat stranded in a sea of folks who don’t understand anyone listening to anything that isn’t on the radio.
The album goes on to run the gamut of Appalachian music in all its tenderness and coarseness. “That’s what I love about this music; it’s so diverse,” Powell says. “On this album, I want to show that there’s a wild, raucous, fun side, but also an intimate, dark, and warm side. I think Time Again conveys the whole palette.”
Powell also wanted to find some sort of middle ground. “The trick is staying true to the music, finding that relaxed home feel but also being relatively free of flaws,” he says. “I tried to strike that balance that would make the listener feel as if they were in a very comfortable atmosphere — just on a porch or living room listening to music — but also in a place where it was accessible to new listeners.”
Powell’s desire is to introduce new listeners to the music he loves so dearly while also keeping it down-home. His music is much like his laughter — restrained enough to include everyone, but confident enough to welcome in old friends.
The tracks are a mix of the obscure and the familiar. Included are such well-known songs as “When Sorrows Encompass Me Round”, performed with Riley Baugus “at two in the morning on my porch,” with crickets singing in the background; “Sally Ann”, with Tom Sauber picking the banjo; and the oft-covered “Handsome Molly”. There are also lesser-known selections such as “Sow ‘Em On The Mountain”, a Carter Family song that isn’t widely covered, and “Mother’s Little Children”, a meditation on being orphaned that is sung by Darrell Scott, whom Powell calls “one of my heroes.”
Powell also turns over the singing to Jim Miller (of Donna The Buffalo) on “Prettiest Little Girl In The County”; it’s another of Powell’s favorites, particularly because of the line, “Swing ’em like you love ’em, boy, you ain’t above ’em.” The father of two girls, Powell is disturbed by modern music’s constant degradation of women in songs. “With the advent of the women’s rights movement, it’s always surprising to me that there is not more complaint about the way women are put down in today’s music,” he says.
The set is further diversified by the rollicking “Police”, which Powell calls “a song from the hard side of music,” and “Goin’ Where I’ve Never Been Before”, a hard-driving song with heavy African American influences. “It’s interesting to me that the banjo became a negative symbol of African-Americans and later became a negative symbol of Appalachia,” he says, referring to 19th-century images of slaves lazily plucking at the instrument and such stereotypes as the mean-spirited banjo players of the movie Deliverance.
“What really matters to me is how American culture is a fusion of so many great things,” he continues. “The banjo is really the original beat box. The origins of hip-hop and old-time are basically the same — the banjo, the instrument for dancing.”
Powell’s observation underscores his understanding of the connections between the past and the present in American music. On Time Again, he brings those elements together, inviting everyone in for a listen without sacrificing any of the dignity of the music.
“I’m really trying to nail that balance and I think the best way is to just let the music speak for itself,” he says. “It’s a living thing.”
Silas House was raised near the same area as Dirk Powell’s family and is the author of three novels, most recently The Coal Tattoo, to be released September 2004.