Dirk Powell served as Artistic Director of Fiddle Tunes from 2005 – 2010.
Dirk Powell has expanded on the deeply rooted sounds of his Appalachian heritage to become one of the pre-eminent traditional American musicians of his generation. In addition to acclaimed releases on Rounder Records, he has recorded and performed with artists such as Loretta Lynn, Sting, Jack White, Levon Helm, Jewel, T-Bone Burnett, Ralph Stanley, and Linda Ronstadt, among others. His ability to unite the essence of his culture with modern sensibilities has also led to work with such film directors as Anthony Minghella, Spike Lee, Ang Lee, Victor Nuñez, Steve James, and Edward Burns.
We’re pleased to be able to reproduce an interview with Dirk Powell that appeared in our first issue of Experience magazine in May, 2006. It it, Dirk talks about his heritage in the Appalachian style of fiddling, the uniting of roots music with modern sensibilities, and cultural racism. That interview starts below.
Centrum: Your roots extend back more than nine generations in the Appalachian mountains. How do the traditions of your heritage resonate with you, and how do they affect your music?
Dirk Powell: The traditions resonate with me in both specific and universal ways. I feel a connection with my grandfather and other ancestors when I’m playing, and knowing of their strong love of life and the ways in which music was their escape from hardship influences the way I feel the music. I’m proud of their perseverance and spirit. While that’s specific to my life, the overall notion of communing with one’s ancestors is something universal that I think we’ve diminished too greatly in this country.
For me, stories of my own heritage provide ways to reach across to others so that they might see the same things in their own lives. If I talk about the taste of the cornbread my grandmother made, the ideal for me isn’t that everyone listening would envision that cornbread, but that one person might be reminded of his own grandmother’s tamales or someone else might recall a family friend bringing homemade Christmas cookies to the house when they were young. The key is to find the meaning that transcends the specifics. I think that’s the key to everything.
I do feel the spirits of my predecessors when I’m playing. When I start to warm up I can almost hear them saying “now, you’re gettin’ it” and when I’m really in the zone it’s as if I can see bunches of them, going several generations back, dancing and smiling and whooping. Am I really calling my ancestors spirits’ back and communing with them or am I simply imagining something? Is the music transforming the world around me or am I transforming the music? While I don’t have a simple answer, I do know that the average American intellectual answer, which is “it’s all in your head,” falls flat.
The inability to accept mystery and the severing of ties to our ancestors have not served this country well. The more ties we cut to the past, the less happy we are. The more short-term are vision becomes, and the more disposable not only our goods but our lives become, the more miserable we are. So, while there are many specific things about Appalachian culture that I am very proud of, like a seemingly impossible mix of profound humility with a willingness to fight tooth and nail for what’s right, my ideal message to others is not “Listen to this story to learn about me,” but “Listen to this story to learn about yourself.” That’s not to say I can reach that goal every time, but that’s what I’m striving for. The greatest lessons humanity offers itself are told through story, and my goal is to be part of that process.
C: You’ve been praised for your ability to unite the essence of Appalachian roots culture with modern sensibilities. How do these two modes of culture inform your music?
DP: I was raised in a way that emphasized both of these things. Like many others, my family moved from Kentucky to Ohio in hopes of finding better opportunities, academic and otherwise. I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, a very small college town.
I understood at a young age that I had been given the opportunities for education and advancement that constitute the American dream for many people, but I also felt that without a deeper sense of who I was, those things weren’t all they were cracked up to be. I was living in a place where the story presented to children was “you can be anything you want to be!” But, in reality, if children don’t have a strong foundation on which to build, that choice often ends up becoming a choice of surface image, not of true identity. If they don’t know who they are in the first place, how can they chart a journey towards who they want to be?
In my case, I was able to follow fairly recent footsteps back to my grandparents’ door and immerse myself in what they had to offer. At the same time, I was living primarily in an area where there was a great deal of access to all aspects of modern culture. One of my goals is to build a bridge by which some of the timeless qualities of older, rural cultures can be brought into the here and now. Having grown up with a foot in both worlds, I hope I’m in a pretty good position to do that.
C: You have worked on the music for several films and documentaries, including Cold Mountain, Stevie, Coastlines, and Ride with the Devil, among others. What are the challenges and pleasures of scoring music for films?
DP: Working on music for film has been one of the most creatively rewarding aspects of my career. I love the collaborative aspect of it. Many art forms have to meld together to create effective film, and thus many artists have to shape their visions to fit together like a puzzle. It’s a humbling experience. In the end, the ultimate goal is to meet the director’s vision, and in a sense you have to surrender your ego. Of course, surrendering your ego is the surest way to let true inspiration through in any context. Creating from your deepest place yet knowing that it’s in service of something else is liberating.
The challenges with film come from the sheer numbers of people involved and the difficulties of getting everyone on the same page. When it happens, it’s magic, but given all the factors it does not happen every time.
C: Could you talk about the creation of your recording studio in Louisiana, the Cypress House? What were the steps that led you to build your own studio? What artists have recorded there, and where do you see the Cypress House going in the future?
With the birth of my daughters, Amelia and Sophie, I felt a profound need to spend less time on the road. I’d been increasing my involvement with film, and recording a lot of music myself, so developing a studio in which I could do both my own projects and outside projects seemed a natural evolution. To create the studio we renovated a house that was built out of cypress wood around 1830. We did extensive work on the acoustics, building out from the frame rather than in to preserve the natural wood and maintain space. Having been in numerous studios, I wanted the environment to be both relaxing and inspiring while providing top-notch audio capability. The most comfortable studios I’d been in were not always the best in terms of audio, while some of the really good ones I’d been in felt a bit sterile or intimidating. I tried to strike that balance and, so far, it seems to be working that way for people.
The studio has been up and running for just over two years and in that time we’ve recorded a large number of projects. A partial list includes Ann Savoy and Linda Ronstadt, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Uncle Earl, April Verch, The Wilders, The Redstick Ramblers, Zoe Speaks, and Corey Ledet.
C: Could you talk about one of your most recent projects, the collaboration on a fusion of Appalachian music and Hip Hop music with Danja Mowf for the film From the Holler to the Hood? What is the focus of the film, and what has the process of fusing those two musical styles been like?
DP: This film deals with the creation of new private prisons in Appalachia. Most of the guards in these facilities are people from the surrounding mountains, while most of the inmates are African Americans from the northeast, many of them there on drug charges that I would consider relatively insignificant. In reality, you have two subcultures that have been pitted against each other. In my opinion, the people of these cultures have more in common than they might think, and, in many ways they share the same cultural antecedents.
Not everyone realizes that in the eighteenth century greater emphasis was placed on class than on race in this country. In many places, slaves and indentured servants occupied the same social class. The fusion that took place is not easily comprehended today, being viewed through the incredible growth of racism in the nineteenth century. A lot of the people that settled the Appalachian Mountains had come out of the mix going on in the tidewater, which is one reason that the banjo, originally an African instrument, was a prevalent dance instrument from very early on.
It might surprise people that the banjo would jive with Hip Hop rhythms, but it is a perfect fit. In the big picture, these are two branches of the same cultural fusion. For me, putting them together was like reuniting not-so-distant cousins. The banjo, especially in the old time style, has a ratio of percussion to chords and melody that fits right in with Hip Hop and Funk. It’s like the original sampler. People forget how much of the music that came from Africa to the U.S. came through the banjo.
Working on the film was a pleasure, especially knowing that the fusion of Hip Hop and Appalachian melodies we were creating was going to be broadcast on WMMT, a radio station which broadcasts in the region of the prisons. I loved the idea of our music, and the message it was creating, cutting through the prison walls. [Danja Mowf] and I keep talking about doing some more together and I think it will happen one of these days.
C: What was your first experience with Fiddle Tunes like, and where do you see the Festival going in the future?
DP: My first experience at Fiddle Tunes was very positive. I felt like real differences were being made in peoples’ lives in terms of the entire year, not just the week of the workshop. I’ve had numerous experiences there that I’ll cherish forever, in which I could literally see a drop hit the water that I knew was going to create ripples for generations to come. That, to me, is the essence. It sounds like a cliché to say, “If one person is truly touched by the program, all the effort was worth it,” but I think everyone involved with Fiddle Tunes would agree with that statement. When someone is truly touched, the effect is boundless.
I think there’s been a shift in the way people look at rural traditions in this country. As we get further and further away from the farming roots so many of us used to share, the stigma attached to many of these traditions lessens. Some of the younger generation don’t seem to be quite as aware of how prevalent the negative stereotype of rural people was in this country a few decades ago, and as a result the music and art forms tied to those ways of life are more likely to be seen in a positive light. I think that the challenge for programs like Fiddle Tunes is to respond to this transition effectively.
Young people are ready to make traditional art forms their own in the truest sense. They understand the value of creative expression and it’s up to the preceding generations to give them the means through which they can share their stories with the world. Many of them have been bombarded with heavily branded advertising on an unprecedented scale since before they could walk, and many are rejecting this attempted manipulation of their lives. I think it’s essential to be there for them.