Dirk Powell is a badass. At least, that's what Steve Earle reckons. And a number of other industry luminaries as well. As the preeminent traditional artists on the scene today, Powell has worked with Hollywood directors like Ang Lee, Anthony Minghella, and Spike Lee. He’s performed with Jack White, tours as Joan Baez’s band, was called “the greatest old-time banjo player alive” by Earle, and is one of T-Bone Burnett’s right hand men. All this fame and high-level work is based on one thing: Dirk Powell is loyal first and foremost to the musical traditions that inspire him. He inherited Appalachian old-time music from his family, later married into Cajun royalty, and somehow mastered both musical genres completely, a very rare thing for any musician. He’s a polymath traditionalist, but he’s never been limited by the traditions. His new album, Walking Through Clay (his premiere on Sugar Hill Records) proves this. It sounds greatly different from his previous albums, some of which featured family field recordings and mostly covers of Appalachian old-time or Cajun songs and tunes. On Walking Through Clay, Powell brings the hammer down hard. Most of the songs are original, and filled with crunched-up electric guitar, waves of instruments, soaring vocals, and power ballads. But unlike most other albums that blend rock and trad, this album sounds totally natural. It brings home the fact that traditional music has always been popular music, no matter the era. This is the kind of album that only a master could make.
We caught up with Dirk at home to find out more about the influences behind the album and to get some of his thoughts on American roots music today.
What was it like to step out of the tradition to write your own songs and really perform as a songwriter? You've been performing music that's steeped in tradition so long, how does it feel to use that to create something new?
DIRK: I've always written songs, from the time I was a kid, but I never really had a format in which to perform a lot of them. I was never driven to sing them on stage, for the most part, because I was so happy digging into the tradition, and, as I've always said, I felt there was really an infinite amount of expression resting in the center of any tradition. So, I did feel I could say anything I had to say through it, while also continually writing songs that felt traditional in their style and delivery. The songs on Walking Through Clay are still, for the most part, songs that I feel are tied to tradition in melody and approach, though I definitely stretched things in terms of delivery and style. I still have a lot of songs that are less traditional than these, more piano-based things and ballads, that I may find more of an outlet for. At this point, for me, I want to reflect the balance of all the music I love, which means a big dose of tradition but also all the other musical worlds I love so much and have loved for so long. Appalachian tradition is my first language, in a way, and Creole/Cajun music is a close second, even though I was also "speaking" other languages while trying to become fluent in those. I do feel fluent in them now and am excited about using them to say whatever I have to say. That's what the relationship to tradition feels like, on this record.... like I can use this language of mine to say what I have to say right now, with love, and freedom, and, I hope, power.
This album is a lot harder than what I'm used to hearing from you. "Walking Through Clay" has almost a metal or punk crunch to it on the beat. But it also sounds like an old folk song. What are you hearing in the folk music you grew up with that ties it to metal, punk, or other genres of more mainstream music?
DIRK: Yeah, with this record I joked, in a way, that it's "the buckskin fringe of 1773 meets the buckskin fringe of 1973." In a way, that's sort of a humorous take on it, but it's true that I listened to a lot of the amazing FM radio that was happening in the 1970s. I was born in 1969... so, a lot of the music of the 1970s formed me, in some ways. And then I rejected a lot of it in the early 80s, when I did feel drawn to punk and other things. In the end I'm an American musician, and I think most American musicians can't resist a killer riff.
I love the rock that grew out of the blues that also shaped the Appalachian music I love. They are just not all that separate, to me. They all formed out of this mix of African and European and Native American roots... and I hear deep similarity between all of it. I think I hear things in a different way than most people do, sometimes. I hear a lot of brotherhood in things that some people might consider vastly different. I mean, when I drive around with my girls, who are 9 and 12, we listen to The Balfa Brothers (their grandfather and uncles) but we also listen to AC/DC, loud! They can't NOT rock to AC/DC. I don't know how you can't like medium tempo old-time music, in a way, which is based on all these great bluesy riffs and melodies, and not love AC/DC's medium-tempo riff-based songs that just groove like crazy. So I hear the similarities, not the differences I guess. Honestly, for me, it all goes back to this mix of what happened in America. It's the story of 20th century music, in a way..... this combination of things that happened in the western hemisphere and then exploded back around the world as something both daringly new and yet still familiar because the ingredients had come from every corner of the globe.
My intent with this record is not to be progressive or to create a "fusion" of things... it is to reveal the musical world I already live in and just take down walls I put up to learn things to the degree that I wanted to learn them. I love simplicity and solo instruments telling their stories... and it's mostly what I do on stage, for sure. But, I also just wanted to tell my story... I will always be a tradition-bearer. This record doesn't change that, to me.
Do you see American folk music as something marginalized? Most folkies think of this music as something only they and their own communities understand and appreciate. But I wonder if folk music hasn't always been at the center of American music. What do you think?
Interesting thought. I tour with Joan Baez, so I see a lot of different interpretations of what folk music means. I see so many people whose lives have been changed by it for the better... and it's truly touching and beautiful. It as an honor to make music with her, of course, not just because of the music she makes but also because she has inspired so many thousands of people, and women in particular, to pick up a guitar and sing without fear.
It's interesting, because the definition of folk music can vary so widely. I definitely feel that the roots of so much American music, whether it's popular music, or country music, or hip hop, or anything else, are largely tied to the fusion of African and European origins. Obviously that happened a thousand ways and then flowered in a thousand new ways, and continues to. But it's all so connected. I definitely think those fusions happened, especially before recording was involved, in environments and styles that would be considered "folk music..." So I do think it's at the center of a lot, in a way, but the label may be easily misconstrued. It also has to do with the difference between music that is social in nature and music that is performance-oriented; music which draws people into a circle contrasting with music which projects out to an audience from a stage. I think a lot of popular music, performed in a way that projects to an audience, has roots that goes back to social music. And I think people long for that, long to be included in something... they want music to be social, even if they've only known it as something performed on a stage.
Steve Earle has been quoted as saying that there's no genre of American roots music that you don't understand, no primordial mode you can't master. How have you been able to play so well across traditions? That's uncommonly rare.
DIRK: I'm actually writing a book now about what music means to–and how it is experienced by–someone for whom it becomes such a total salvation as a small child. I am so fortunate that I not only grew up in a home full of music, I also set out, at a very young age, to learn from older masters. I learned directly from people involved in the entire musical evolution of the 20th century. Sometimes I can't believe that. But then I realize, yes, I learned from these musicians who were born before 1900 and started playing around 1900. It's amazing to me when I ponder it, and I feel so blessed to be 44 years old but have learned from people born in the 1800s. I sought it out and I felt for the commonalities between things. I had some harsh lessons and some beautiful experiences. I think I internalized it and, again, I approached things as you do a language. I wanted to learn to speak the language of people I cared about and loved. I wanted to be able to converse with them, musically, in the most expressive ways. With Louisiana music, for sure, I approached it this way. It was important to me to feel I could express myself and could also fully comprehend what others were expressing. I think that's really what enabled me to play different traditions... love for the people playing them.
What's your take on the legacy of Pete Seeger? He just passed away and I wonder if he was an inspiration to you?
DIRK: The first time I heard of Pete Seeger was when I was a tiny kid and my father had taken my sister to see him. She wrote him a letter saying she enjoyed the concert and he wrote her back on paper he had made himself! It made a big impression in our household, on many levels. I didn't hear him directly then, but not long after I heard his brother Mike, who was also deeply influential and important in the path of American music. I recently read Pete's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and it is so inspiring. He stood up and spoke truth to power in the most real, and dangerous, way possible... so admirable and so what you would hope to be as a human being. At the 50th Newport Folk Festival, I was singing "Angel Band" with Joan Baez and the other members of her band at the time. It was an a cappella version. I remember looking to the side of the stage and seeing Pete run over to see who was singing. He hoisted himself up and looked across the foot of the stage with a big grin on his face. That made me very happy. I was excited to know that just that pure sound, which I felt fortunate to be making with Joan and others, had drawn him over like a kid to an ice cream truck!
Most of the older tradition bearers that inspired the folk revivalists have passed on at this point. What do you think the next step is for American roots music? Will folk revivalists become the tradition bearers? Have they always been tradition bearers? What happens, for example, when the last of the native Cajun French speakers passes away...
DIRK: I don't feel like a folk revivalist in any way, so I don't know really! I mean, I learned from my father and grandfather, and from other older musicians, and it went into my heart and it comes back out from there. I don't feel like I was reviving anything... it was never dead.
I get that perspective on it, though, for sure. There's no doubt that some who really might be considered revivalists have inspired new generations and are indeed tradition bearers, even if, in many ways, the tradition is more shaped by their own experiences than those of the people who lived in the culture in which it originated. I think anything that makes people happy and gets them playing music socially, in particular, is a good thing.
The question about Cajun French is interesting. It can often come down to being a glass half empty versus a glass half full kind of viewpoint. It's easy, living in Louisiana, to lament the loss of a lot of language and culture. But I still hear people speaking French in the grocery store all the time and I can still go dance anytime I want to, so it's hard to know.
I think humans have always been in this state of referencing the past and wondering about the future. But, in the present, you just hope to touch someone. That's where I am with it. I just want to reach someone. It sounds like a cliché, but it's not, really. If I can have an emotional impact on someone that I can tell is valuable to them, I feel all is worth it. I feel like artists take risks for the audience....... they open things up to the deepest place so that everyone in the room can feel catharsis without having to open up that place themselves. As an artist, you do it and you bring people into that. Ideally, that inspires and helps them... though everyone knows stories of artists who deplete themselves in that way and then have nothing left. It can be dangerous to risk a lot... but that's what I try to do.
What are some projects you're currently working on at The Cypress House in Louisiana? What got you into record recording, engineering and producing? What do you love about producing albums and what would you tell bands who are wondering if they really need a producer?
DIRK: I'm working with Christa DeCicco, a great singer from Knoxville, and doing a few film projects. Got a record with great harmonica player Grant Dermody coming up soon. I love recording and engineering because I just love audio. I love it when things sound good. I love producing because it's exciting to help people achieve their visions and maybe tap into some things they didn't know they had inside. It's satisfying to take a group of songs, or performances, and make them into a work of art as a whole. It feels great to help someone reach, or even surpass, the potential they felt inside themselves. Some bands don't need producers and some do, I guess. Oftentimes, it's hard for a group to make effective artistic decisions... too many cooks can spoil the broth, and within bands there can be challenges and issues. So, it is good to have someone who can have final say and can shape the entire project as a work of art while allowing the band members to feel free to perform without worry... it's enough to play and make the song the best it can be. But, some bands can work in an egalitarian way, and some bands have a natural producer or two within their ranks that end up in that role regardless. That can lead to resentment too, of course! I would say that anyone who thinks they don't want or need a producer should, at some point, give it a try, if they have someone they trust, and see what it feels like to give up certain attachments. I think it can be really freeing and make for great music.
What inspires you about the old music? You've been so deep in the tradition for so long, how has it sustained you?
DIRK: I think it's really timeless... something that each generation hands down to the next to make it their own. It does sustain me and yet in drawing from it I am always giving back, which is the same with anyone who plays and is part of a tradition. That's the beauty of it. I always say it's a sustainable resource in that way: every time you take, you give back. It's lovely. I've found so much strength in it and the framework in which to be who I want to be and to live the life I could only dreamed of living as a kid. So, I am grateful to all the musicians who played it, whether they sat in a room alone or got accolades on stage, and I am grateful to everyone who found that spark within to pick up an instrument and try.
To discover more about Dirk and his new record Walking Through Clay (out now on Sugar Hill Records), visit dirkpowell.org