Dirk Powell’s “A Fret-Free Christmas”: Fretless Banjo Carols
We’re suckers for good Christmas music. You know, the kind that plays in the background when you get up Christmas morning, make some coffee, and settle onto the couch to start opening presents. This can’t be music that’s full of big beats and crashing guitars. This is music that makes you feel like it’s Christmas. Like it’s snowy outside and you need to snuggle under the blankets, even if you’re in Palm Springs for the holidays.
So we’re very happy to talk about our new favorite Christmas album: Dirk Powell’s “A Fret-Free Christmas”. Dirk has completely re-envisioned 18 Christmas carols, from “Frosty the Snowman” to “Away in a Manger”. And the thing is, it sounds amazing! By focusing entirely on the soft tones of the fretless banjo, and adding in phrasings and ornaments for his lifelong love of Southern old-time music, these carols come back to life. You can listen closely and love every second, or slap it on repeat for Christmas morning.
We still can’t believe how good he makes these old songs sound. But it makes sense in a way. Folk music is all about working within limitations. How to make a centuries old medieval ballad sound as timely as CNN? Same way to make us fall in love again with Silent Night. Only the best musicians can make this kind of mastery seem effortless.
Dirk Powell’s one of the best modern interpreters of American roots music. Aside from being a powerhouse fiddler/banjo player/singer/songwriter, signed first to Rounder and now Sugar Hill, he’s most famous for his work with Jack White (of the White Stripes) on the Hollywood blockbuster Cold Mountain. If you haven’t seen this film, get the hell off your couch and out ot the video store to rent it. T-Bone Burnett did the music on the film, and it should have done for Southern old-time music what O Brother did for early bluegrass and hillbilly music. But though the darkness of the film kept the soundtrack from being a similar game changer, it’s still an amazing soundtrack that everyone needs to own.
I Wish My Baby Was Born
Dirk Powell, banjo; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Tim Eriksen, Tim O’Brien, Riley Baugus, vocals
You can also check out this 2004 article on Dirk Powell from No Depression’s published archives. The article, by Silas House, discuess Dirk’s upbringing, musical perspective and role in the movie Cold Mountain.
So how did this CD of fretless banjo Christmas Carols come about? Dirk’s got a great story about that:
“Several years ago, I came home from a frantic round of Christmas shopping at the mall to find two homemade fretless banjos waiting in big boxes on my porch. They turned out to be gifts from my cousin, Alfred Sorenson, of Castlewood, Virginia. I was so moved by the generosity of Alfred’s gift that I ran into the house and recorded several Christmas carols for him on the instruments, racing back out and to the post office just in time to overnight him a cassette of the results.
My gift felt tiny compared to his, but I could tell from his reaction that he was overjoyed with the music I’d made on his instruments. Between us, it seemed we had managed to capture some part of what it means to give a gift, to pour your heart into something with focus only on the person who will receive it. There was an antidote to the frantic commercialism and social pressures that have attached themselves to the Christmas holiday in this quiet music made on hand-carved wooden banjos.
The following year I decided that one way to expand on the generosity of Alfred’s original gift would be to record an album’s worth of Christmas music on the instruments for family and friends. I titled the project ‘A Fret-Free Christmas,’ alluding to the lack of frets on the banjos, of course, but also to my hope that it would serve as a mellowing influence during holiday seasons that seemed to be growing increasingly stressful and commercial. I made several editions over the years, passing them out to those whom I thought would enjoy the music and the general spirit of the project.
After a lot of feedback encouraging me to do so, I’ve decided to make the music available to the general public. I hope it will continue to spread the joy I felt upon receiving those wonderful banjos all those years ago. I also hope it will encourage people to take a deep breath and, perhaps, think about what gifts they might be able to create with their own hands this Christmas. If it encourages anything of that sort, I will know that the original spirit of Alfred’s gift lives on.”
Happy Holidays from your friends at Hearth Music