Dirk Powell Returns From Cold Mountain

Instrumentalist's Latest Solo Project, Time Again, Shows Deep Appalachian Roots

Dirk Powell’s prominence on the Cold Mountain soundtrack — he’s a featured singer on one cut and plays banjo on six — will almost certainly draw attention to his new album, Time Again, which has just been released by Rounder Records.

As with most of his earlier solo records, Time Again is steeped in the Appalachian themes, melodies and cadences Powell learned from his grandfather. Indeed, he weaves snippets of his grandfather’s picking and conversations throughout the album to create a stylistic continuum.

Of the 15 songs on Time Again, Powell composed only two. The rest are either traditional public domain tunes or selections from the dawn of commercial country music. It is very much an ensemble undertaking, with Powell enlisting Tim O’Brien and Jim Miller to sing lead on two songs and Darrell Scott as his duet partner on another. He also features fellow banjo-picker Riley Baugus, who plays on the Cold Mountain soundtrack as well. “I don’t step out into the spotlight,” Powell says, “as much as try to present a complete, whole recording that means something.”

Powell, 34, spent his early years in the university town of Oberlin, Ohio. Fascinated by music, he began studying piano when he was 8. Two years later, he switched to the baroque harpsichord to indulge his passion for Bach. “When I got to be about 12 or 13,” he says, “my grandfather’s music started resonating with me a lot more. I kind of realized that the formal world of classical music wasn’t really for me. It felt like it was focusing a lot on practicing and getting somewhere with technique, but it didn’t seem like you spent very much time actually being there, actually playing the music.”

With playing music foremost in his mind, Powell began spending more time in eastern Kentucky, where his family came from and where his grandfather, James Clarence Hay, still lived. “My family did that whole thing of leaving eastern Kentucky and going up to Ohio for the good life,” says Powell, recounting the region’s generations-old migratory pattern. “That was a wonderful thing. I was glad they could do that. But they also left a lot behind that I really lacked in terms of family and place. … I was able to go back down there [to Kentucky], and it was great for me and great for my grandfather. He had given [music] up when he was young. So it kind of gave me my life and gave him back his life because music was the most important thing to him. But he’d had to give it up to raise a family, like a lot of people do.” The excerpts Powell uses in Time Again are from a recording he made during a 1990 visit with his grandfather, who died the following year.

Powell calls Appalachian music his “first language” and adds, “I have a wide range of interests in different styles, but … within the Appalachian tradition, there’s a whole range of expression. There’s all the real wild stuff, but there’s a lot of real tender and sparse stuff, too.”

In his late teens, Powell became a wandering minstrel, “playing for dances and various things,” sometimes solo and sometimes sitting in with bands. He moved to North Carolina and worked the traditional music circuit up and down the East Coast. Later, he met and married Christine Balfa, the daughter of the legendary Cajun performer, Dewey Balfa. After Balfa died in 1992, Powell and his wife formed a Cajun band, Balfa Toujours, which went on to record a series of albums for Rounder. “There was a little bit of interest in Cajun music [before I met her],” says Powell with a laugh, “but once the wife came into the picture, the interest in Cajun music multiplied by about a hundred.”

In 1996, Powell cut his first solo album for Rounder, If I Go Ten Thousand Miles. Two years later, inspired by the novel Cold Mountain, he joined Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann to record a collection of period pieces called Songs From the Mountain.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Powell began working in films. After hearing some of his music, producers at the Appalshop media center in Whitesburg, Ky., asked him to score the documentary, Stranger With a Camera, which tells the story of a Canadian photographer murdered in Kentucky. At about the same time, Powell says, a music producer for director Ang Lee contracted him to play fiddle and banjo on the soundtrack for Ride With the Devil. This assignment paired him with the singer Jewel. He also played on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.

Recently, Powell completed another score for an Appalshop documentary, Holler to the Hood. It examines the phenomenon of maximum security prisons in Appalachia that are populated primarily by African-Americans from the Northeast but staffed by white locals. Working with him on the score was Danja Mowf, a hip-hop producer and rapper from Richmond, Va. Powell says the two seemingly diverse musical styles went well together. “The banjo is of African origin,” he points out, “and the old-time banjo style is very much like a lot of African-American music in terms of riffs and rhythm.” A spokeswoman for Appalashop says the documentary is scheduled to be released in December and that it will be accompanied by a soundtrack album.

Other projects on Powell’s horizon include producing an album for the North Carolina band Polecat Creek and providing music for an Appalshop film based on Wendell Berry’s essay about the attacks of Sept. 11, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.