Posthaste Q&A with Dirk Powell

by Dege Legg

Dirk Powell throws the CD release party for A Fret-Free Christmas at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge tonight, Dec. 15 from 7- 9 p.m. Call and get your reservation in now.

Musician, composer, producer, writer, Ohio transplant, Louisiana resident Dirk Powell is a busy man. If he isn't touring with Joan Baez, he's recording with Jack White. If he isn't performing or arranging music for films, he's scoring documentaries. Guy's all over the place. His latest venture is a Christmas CD, A Fret-Free Christmas. Years ago, after receiving two handmade fretless banjos as a Christmas gift from a cousin, Powell returned the favor by recording an album's worth of Christmas carols for him on the instruments the same day. After giving out copies of the recording to friends and family over the years, Powell decided to make it available to the public for the first time on Valcour Records. With cover art by his eight-year-old daughter Amelia, the familiar Christmas standards on A Fret-Free Christmas have an old dusty resonance and purity of soul - like some snowy and forgotten Appalachian lullabies - that flashy Christmas records can't touch. The simple and touching execution of just one man playing these old songs has a Zen-like calming influence on the mind. As Powell says in the liner notes of the album, "My hope is that the disc would serves as a mellowing influence during the holiday seasons that seem to be growing increasingly stressful and commercial." Dirk Powell throws the CD release party for A Fret-Free Christmas at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge tonight, Dec. 15 from 7- 9 p.m. Call and get your reservation in now. The CD is also now available on iTunes and at www.valcourrecords.com, as well as most music outlets in Lafayette.

Dirk Powell


History of Dirk Powell in five words, more or less.
Was born, ate baby foods, made Shrinky Dinks, learned banjo, dropped out of school, lived in my car, drove to Louisiana, had my compass reset at El Sido's. That's Vol. 1.


Why music? Why not Dirk Powell: Ostrich Farmer?**
I've got my head in the sand too, man, that's the problem with Ostrich Farming - I can't see them and they can't see me. It's too hard to lasso 'em up that way. Music because, as a kid, it saved me from the creeping demons that lurked pompously around the house. That old turntable and those silver knobs were the bright beacons of light that chased the nasty dark spirits into the corners.

How competitive is the international roots music circuit? Do you overhear guys backstage saying, "I'm gonna blow Dirk Powell off the fricking stage tonight!?"
I think the overall roots music circuit is pretty cool and not all that competitive, but I can tell you a couple of scary stories from the world of bluegrass, old and new.  One is of a famous bandleader of the old-school generation who was part of a multi-act tour I did a few years ago. Backstage before the show, after he had prayed in the dressing room with his band, he was overheard to say "Boys, a lot of good musicians are going to be out there on that stage tonight. And I want you to go out there and WIPE THE FLOOR WITH 'EM!" The scarier story, to me, though, is of a Bluegrass band of the younger generation who were at a festival I played last summer. After the show they were hanging briefly backstage and one of the members, wanting to make sure they got over to the CD table to sell as much as possible, said, in a super-cute and slightly scolding voice, "C'mon guys - merchy, merchy!" As in "merchandise."  That was the priority and that was the attitude. It makes me shudder. Merchy, merchy!

What's a typical session with Jack White like? Any weird quirks, rules, or pre-game rituals?
A session with Jack White is a lesson in what the hell matters in this world. He is very generous in that role, very passionate, very juiced on the creative process. He is all about first-take energy and spontaneous performance. It's a fast, unworked thing with him, which is one reason his music resonates so much with people in an era when computers are used to quantize and pitch-correct everything. He has a great balance of belief in his own vision and interest in what others think. His studio in Nashville is truly inspiring - every inch of the place is artistically satisfying to the senses, visually and aurally. It's all done in red, black and white, with every wall a different combination of materials. In terms of audio, he has the heaviest vintage stuff and it's all going to 2-inch 8-track tape.  To work that way you have to fly off the cuff. Tracks get bounced down or abandoned on the spot if something better seems to be working. It creates an energy that remains in all his recordings because it's there at the foundation. To me, he's the ultimate example of having an artistic vision and never, ever, taking no for an answer in realizing it.

Jack White

When you're hanging backstage with Joan Baez and she starts telling old stories about "Bobby," is it automatically assumed she is talking about Dylan?
Yes, she has great stories about Dylan, for sure, and about many other folks too. The one I've been loving lately, and that has been getting a lot of play with my newly Beatles-aware daughters, is about John and Ringo coming to visit her in California sometime in the mid-to-late 60s. She took them to a Mexican restaurant, which was still fairly exotic at the time - but they had just returned from being dragged to India by George, so Ringo was really sick of spicy food. Joan does a great impersonation of him saying, in his Liverpudlian accent, "I'll 'ave an 'amburger." I love that the "h" is so silent that he used "an" in front of it.

One of my favorite Dylan stories, though, was told to me by Bob Neuwirth. On the Rolling Thunder tour, mid-1970s, they played in Baton Rouge and Bobby Charles came to the show. He had thought the tour was going to stop by his place here in Southwest Louisiana en route to Houston. Neuwirth told him that they weren't going to be able to do it and Bobby Charles said, "But, man, I baked a CAKE!" Neuwirth and Dylan looked at each other and turned back to Bobby. "You baked a cake?" And Bobby said, "Yeah, man, I baked a cake." So Neuwirth said, "All right then, man, if you baked a cake we're coming!" And the whole tour went to Bobby Charles' place for several days and got so entrenched there that they had to cancel the show in Houston.  Neuwirth said he saw a big freezer on Bobby's porch when he got there and opened it up nothing but frosted mugs.

The Three Bobbys:

Bobby Dylan

Bobby Neuwirth

Bobby Charles

Worst gig ever?**
I was performing in Knoxville, sitting on a stool, playing the accordion. I got really rocking during the Mardi Gras song and the damn stool collapsed from beneath me and I landed on my ass in front of everyone. They were recording the show and it's hilarious when that moment hits. You hear this horrible lurching calamity of notes on the accordion and the sounds of my bones and bits of wood hitting the floor. And then you hear me say to the band who were laughing their asses off "Don't stop playing!"

Best gig ever?
This is a hard one. When you get in the zone of really making music, when the channel is really open and it is flowing through you, you get into this present state of mind that is just purely creative. It's a spiritual thing, really, and there can be no better place than that.  I guess the ego would claim the best gig to be the one where the crowd went wild or some person you admired dug the show. But, really, many gigs are the best gigs if you arrive at the place where the music is all that matters that can happen in the tiniest club in the world or on the biggest stage. There's a feeling of levitating and being above everything. When it happens, that's what it's all about...in a way that has no best or worst.

A Fret-Free Christmas has a great vibe and feel to it. How'd the record come about?
Year ago I was asked to be part of a film called "The Irish Empire." They wanted me to explore the roots of the Scots-Irish, my people, who had settled in the Appalachian Mountains. I knew that a distant relative I had never met had an ancient family fiddle and I called to ask him about coming to his house with a film crew and possibly tracking down this fiddle. And he said something that really resonated with me - "Wait a minute, son... you've got to get in on the ground floor!" And I realized he was right: here I was talking about family, and how it mattered - roots, tradition, etc. - yet I was basically ignoring all of it to just say "I wanna come over with a film crew."  So, I backed off from that approach and went and hung out with these cousins of mine, who were in their 80s, and I developed a real friendship with them. One day, probably a year later, I came home to find a big box with two hand carved fretless banjos on the porch that he had made for me. I was so touched that I recorded a cassette of Christmas music that afternoon and FedExed it to him. He was thrilled and I felt like the real spirit of Christmas was reflected in that exchange, so I recorded the music for CD to give out to family and friends over the years. Joel Savoy at Valcour Records approached me about releasing it and I was thrilled with the idea - seemed like high time to do that.  It really is an anti-hype sort of project a Christmas CD for people who want to reflect on the deeper meaning of the season.

Is it appropriate to wear the Ebola Men's Winter Vest to my in-laws for the holidays?

Ebola Vest vs. Mountain Man

****The only appropriate coat to wear to your in-laws is full-length fur, preferably something from an endangered species that shows them you're not some mamsy-pamsy liberal-type who won't be able to provide for their little girl. Polar bear makes a lasting impression as a mid-winter choice.

What's the future of the banjo? Where's it going? What can/can't it do?
The banjo is an interesting phenomenon. It really is the instrument that most represents the fusion of African and Celtic music that happened in the South. It became negatively associated with African Americans, who largely abandoned it, and then it became negatively associated with Appalachian people through things like the Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance.  In reality, it's one of the oldest instruments around and really is the vehicle by which a lot of African music came to this country and formed American music. It's had a history as being wildly popular and widely demonized. I think it's at a good point right now seems like people are creating new music and digging up old music in very cool ways. Not everyone knows that in its original form it sounds more like a Kora or similar African instruments than the very bright metal-on-metal sound we've gotten used to. A Fret-Free Christmas definitely emphasizes the mellower, older sound.

Name one thing nobody knows about Dirk Powell?
Once I walked to Target and decided to take a cab back. I asked the customer service person to call one for me and when she had the taxi company on the phone she said to me, "Can I get your name, sir?"  I told her, and she said, "I need a taxi for a Mr. Dork Power." And then she tried not to choke on her own spit from laughing. Yes, that's me.  Dork Power! I'm going to get signs printed up with those words on them and march around promoting my cause -  power to the dorks!

Dork Power