Dirk Powell is one of those rarest of sorts: an energetic young buck who knows old-time as well as the elders. He stokes the old-time flame and feels its warmth in his bones. The crème of the new authenticity, this is the man Tim O’Brien introduces as “my musical hero.”
Hailing originally from the small town of Oberlin, Ohio, in Lorain County near Cleveland, Powell began his musical journey there playing classical-style piano at age 8 and the harpsichord by age 10. He later came to genuinely and deeply appreciate the Appalachian style through the influence and character of his grandfather James Clarence Hay of Ashland, Kentucky.
Since then, Powell has come to the South himself and has taken on just about every musical instrument you can pick, strum, scratch, claw, bang on or squeeze. Powell is known to have played at one time or another the banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, fiddle and fife.
He is also a champion accordion player, having won top prize in 1994 at the Annual Mulate’s Accordion Contest, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Powell teaches the instrument as well. And he’s a mighty fine singer too.
Dirk Powell has developed an impressive résumé that leaves one gasping at his range and energy. Besides having joined Christine Balfa in matrimony, fathering their first child in March 2002, and making a home for his family in his wife’s home state of Louisiana, Powell has engaged his energies in many other fascinating ways in his few decades in this world.
While Powell’s first love is playing in the old-time style with his immensely talented friends, he has been involved in such diverse projects as touring with a Cajun/Zydeco band, playing bass for Donna the Buffalo, the electric guitar for the Freewill Savages and the fiddle for Riverdance.
He has collaborated with rap and alternative rock artists, scored film soundtracks and has written commentary for literary magazines as well as Civil War and Celtic documentaries. He is featured in a series of Cajun accordion instructional videos. He has produced recordings by Ginny Hawker and others and has written many engaging original tunes for his own recordings and various other musical collaborations, such as with 10,000 Maniacs and the Mamou Playboys.
Powell has performed and recorded extensively with Tim O’Brien around the world and is featured prominently on the album “Songs from the Mountain,” a fine musical tribute to the Charles Frazier novel Cold Mountain. It was this recording that helped inspire the director of the Cold Mountain movie to partner Powell with T Bone Burnett as a technical expert on the set and as a performer for the film’s soundtrack.
Not to be outdone in this arena, Powell has recently written his own original screenplay entitled “Lost Branch” which addresses modern alienation from deep and direct family ties.
At any given time, Powell can be found picking in a recording studio, contributing to an important cultural project or sitting for an interview. Or perhaps sitting at a writing pad to pen a new song, a thoughtful print article, or some gracious liner notes for a friend.
Still, among his favorite things to do now and again is to spontaneously form or re-form a musical ménage and perform at home or abroad either as a coveted band-member or session man.
Dirk Powell does have trouble sitting still. But we don’t mind. He recently found time in his schedule to perform some old-time acoustic mountain music for us here in Asheville to a packed house at The Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, along with Riley Baugus and The Foghorn Stringband.
Riley Baugus, who began fiddling at age 10 himself, worked closely with Powell on the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack. He has taught banjo, guitar, and fiddle at music camps throughout the U.S. and has toured Germany and France with The Farmer’s Daughters. In 2000, he toured Ireland with Tim O’Brien and Dirk Powell.
Powell, this night, was clearly proud of his work on the “Cold Mountain” project, even though the audience grumbled under its breath. No doubt related to the controversy over farming the out whole production to Brits, Aussies, Italians, pop stars, punk rockers and Romanian locales and extras. Nonetheless, kudos are in order for Powell and Baugus for having infused the project with some much needed authenticity.
But tonight, The Dirk Powell Band would put all of that right. With this concert, Powell would demonstrate once again that he is giddy to leap feet-first into the thick, musty bog of mountain culture that informs so much of modern Americana.
The show was an unabashed offering of bedrock old-time music in its purest form. And the well-rounded sets featured a fair mix of fast and slow tunes, including several from the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack.
The ensemble gathered there consisted of twin clawhammered banjos, twin fiddles (with Powell on one), guitar, mandolin and a rather chewed-up old acoustic bass. In Dirk’s words, “we’ve got the whole honkin’ band up here.”
For the most part, the whole honkin’ band played a series of rousing numbers that brought many to their feet. But the band broke up periodically into smaller groupings. At times, Powell and Baugus performed duets on banjo and fiddle and at other times the two performed solo pieces separately. Particularly moving was the ‘a cappella‘ singing of Riley Baugus at one point in the show. (Powell himself was almost brought to tear at this stark rendering.)
In between songs, Powell and Baugus treated the attentive crowd to a few humorous stories of their work on the sets of the “Cold Mountain” movie. Baugus even deftly impersonated thickly-accented film director Anthony Minghella as he instructed Baugus to cry out “coo-coo!” in a high voice at a certain point in the song of the same name. A suggestion that Baugus politely declined. The audience, though, joined in the jest when they sporadically cried out “coo-coo!” after the song was played.
The performances were authentic and first-rate and the crowd was enthusiastic. Well-known cloggers Rodney Sutton and Phil Jamison kicked up some dust in the rear open space behind the rows of fold-up chairs. And Cary Fridley arrived late but joined the party after the show was over to chat with the gathered friends of old-time. (One wonders when Fridley and Powell will share a stage.)
While at the Grey Eagle show, Powell did let slip that he has a new recording in the hopper. It is called “Time Again” and is due out January 2004. For this one he is joined in the studio by concert-mates Riley Baugus and The Foghorn Stringband, as well as by old friends Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, and Jim Miller. It promises to be a good’n.
Dirk Powell’s fine old-time recordings, acoustic musical projects, original songwriting and compelling commentary show us quite clearly that he has solid roots in the fertile past and sturdy, bountiful branches extending toward a delightful future.