If you’re not familiar with Dirk Powell’s name, it’s not because you haven’t heard his work. It’s because, for him, creating art is more important than pursuing fame. And his prodigious artistry as a player, composer, producer and arranger fluent in Appalachian, Cajun, Celtic and myriad other musical idioms has kept him so busy working with Joan Baez, Rhiannon Giddens, T Bone Burnett, Jack White, Eric Clapton and film directors from Ang Lee to Spike Lee, solo projects take a while.
That explains the six-year gap between his last album, Walking through Clay, and his new one, When I Wait for You. He spent much of that time playing fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, accordion and keyboards on tour with Baez and working with his longtime friend Giddens, coproducing Freedom Highway, her acclaimed solo album, and Songs of Our Native Daughters, the album she made as one-fourth of the banjo-wielding quartet Our Native Daughters. The pair also composed songs used on the TV show Nashville, and she sings and plays on three of his new album’s tracks, as well as contributing viola and minstrel banjo.
Powell recorded those projects and many others at his
Cypress House Studio, in a pre-Civil War-era building on the edge of Bayou
Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, outside of Lafayette. “Some of this was
recorded a few years ago,” he says of the new tracks, “but it took some time to
let it arrive at its final destination.”
Powell wanted to evoke that period of waiting on this album, which he coproduced with accordionist/pianist Donald Shaw of Capercaille.
“When I Wait for You could be for the muse; it could be for a lover,” Powell suggests. “I definitely have a lot of faith and belief in the muses, and the way that, if you just open the channel to them, they bring their beauty and their generosity to you.”
This time, they guided him closer to Ireland than Appalachia or Acadiana, the name given to the Lafayette-centered region where the Cajun/Creole music that lured him there was born. But Celtic roots certainly thread through the old-time, traditional mountain music Powell learned from his grandfather during visits from Oberlin, Ohio, where Powell spent part of his childhood studying piano and harpsichord, and eastern Kentucky, where his Papaw taught him to play fiddle and banjo, awakening his interest in roots music.
Powell eagerly absorbed the songs his grandfather passed down in the age-old oral tradition — including tunes like “Pretty Polly,” “Down in the Willow Garden” and “Knoxville Girl,” all of which describe women meeting brutal deaths at the hands of their lovers.
Powell adored his grandfather’s unique version of “Pretty Polly” and felt a special connection to it. But as he was singing it one day, he realized such violence is often all too real. “I thought about my daughters and my grandmother and other women in my life, and I just thought, ‘I’m not giving glory to these antihero violent men in these songs anymore,’” Powell recalls. “I just could not allow the words out of my mouth again. I stopped in the middle of the song.”
Instead, he wrote, “I Ain’t Playing Pretty Polly,” a gently sung duet with Giddens in which he vows, No more tales of women killed by drunken violent men/They don’t deserve their stories told, I won’t raise my voice again.
Powell reports that some people have protested relegating such songs to history’s dustbin, claiming they’re losing “this beautiful thing, in their minds, that has never been challenged in this way.” But domestic violence victims, used to having their feelings brushed aside, have thanked him for recognizing such lyrics are traumatizing and can help perpetuate abuse. Too often, women wind up questioning their reactions instead of the content, Powell says. He’s watched his teenage daughters do that.
“I’d seen them accept the violence in these songs, first
looking around like, ‘Why is this OK?’ And then going, ‘Well, I guess if
everybody thinks it’s OK, maybe it’s OK.’ I don’t want to be a force for that.”
Giddens helps Powell address another sensitive issue in “Say Old Playmate,” a lovely but sad lament with Scotland’s John McCusker on fiddle and James MacKintosh on drums.
“The origin of it was an experience my father had growing up in Kentucky with an African-American boy who was his best friend, and one day the adults told him that they could no longer be friends,” Powell relates. “When I see my dad tell this story, he still has the look of a hurt 9-year-old, and it’s over 70 years ago and he’s in his 80s. And I still see that traumatic expression. I still see the confusion and that pain.
“That moment was so traumatic for him, that it froze his ability to process it in that time. I think trauma does that to people,” Powell says. “It can lock them in a moment.”
He sees that same stricken look on the faces of people who tell him their stories after hearing the song, in which he sings, Love thy neighbor, I always heard them say/But every sunrise brought another judgment day./And I still walked past your door on my way home from school/trying to memorize their exceptions to the golden rule.
“The last line of the song is, Or do you tell them that
love conquers all, because at the end of the day, that’s my belief — that
it does,” he says.
Singing about such issues isn’t new for Powell, but working with Baez definitely enhanced his appreciation for the power of a socially conscious song. “It’s inspiring to be around somebody who stuck to her guns to the degree that she did — and does,” he says. “And the way this country’s evolved in the last few years … I mean, if you’re not going to stand up now, I don’t know when you would.”
But When I Wait for You doesn’t deal only with serious, sensitive issues. Powell also includes several love songs, letting his Cajun side come out on “Les Yeux de Rosalie,” a waltz cowritten with British flute, whistle and Bodhran player Michael McGoldrick. It also seeps into “The Little Things,” a charming duet with Sara Watkins, who also shares some gorgeous fiddling with McCusker.
Watkins sings with her brother, Sean, on “The Silk
Merchant’s Daughter,” a shanty-like traditional tune that’s the album’s only
cover — and a true story, according to Powell. It’s one of his favorites, in
part because it’s the opposite of a murder ballad; the damsel is spared because
There’s practically a party goin’ on in “Jack of Hearts,” a spirited, yet relaxed song with a pop lean and many singers, including his daughters, Amelia and Sophie, whose laughter at the end adds extra sparkle. Describing it as “almost like Tom Petty meets the Jackson 5,” he wrote it with them in mind. And they had a blast doing it, he says.
His daughters also sing “very Beatle-y harmony” on “Bright
Light of Day,” which even earned approval from his friend Olivia Harrison,
“She just said, ‘Well, it worked then and it works now.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s how I feel,’” Powell says, laughing.