In author Charles Frazier's National Book Award-winning 1997 novel , a wounded Confederate Army soldier escapes from a military hospital and goes AWOL, in a quest to return to his sweetheart and native soil in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. With the horrors of the Civil War as a backdrop, Frazier's book is a meditation on the power of roots, culture and family, as one man struggles to return home in a world that changes around him with every passing moment.
When musician Dirk Powell first read and its pointed descriptions of Appalachian music, he heard the sounds of his grandfather, a fiddler who taught Dirk his musical heritage in the Kentucky mountains. And in soldier Inman's journey, Powell felt the pull that brought him to Louisiana, where he would marry Cajun-music torchbearer Christine Balfa and settle at La Pointe on the banks of Bayou Teche -- the spot where the original Acadian settlers landed after their expulsion from present-day Nova Scotia in 1755.
After finishing the book, Powell sat down to write Frazier a fan letter -- a letter that would bring Powell straight to itself.
On a recent December afternoon, the surface of the muddy clay-colored Teche reflects the live oaks that surround Powell's property. The house he shares with Balfa and their 2-year-old daughter, Amelia, rests at the end of a long dirt driveway, hidden from view off a winding two-lane road. A 10-year-old golden retriever named Jamie lazily barks, and Powell opens his screen door and steps onto the porch. He's dressed in a heavy blue corduroy shirt, jeans and black hiking boots, looking very much like a Northern outdoorsman. It's a typically busy day around the house for Powell; there's a wood stove to be removed, this year's Christmas tree to buy, a rug to be returned to Home Depot.
And in two days, he leaves for Los Angeles to attend the premiere of the film adaptation of , which stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, and is an early favorite in this year's Oscar race. (See "Moving Mountain," p. 32) Powell is featured on the movie's soundtrack, and was one of the film's music consultants, traveling to Romania for two weeks last winter to coach the actors on their musical numbers.
Part of the payoff for Powell was his participation in a Dec. 8 star-studded Cold Mountain music revue in Los Angeles Which raises the question: how exactly does a reserved acoustic-music virtuoso living on the bayou wind up sharing the stage with Sting, Alison Krauss and Jack White of the White Stripes?
"About halfway through reading , I felt like an album absolutely had to come out with all this music," says Powell, between sips of coffee on the back porch while Balfa plays with Amelia on a nearby tire swing. "I knew that nine out of 10 readers wouldn't understand how much the book was related to the music, because Frazier would actually take rhymes from songs and stick them right in the middle of the prose, where you wouldn't even know it was related unless you knew the music really well."
Powell contacted Frazier in 1997 with his idea for a companion album to the book. Frazier had already been approached by other interested parties with the same concept, but had nixed those projects. However, he knew of Powell's music and dedication to Appalachian music, and gave him his blessing. The result was the 1998 album Songs From the Mountain, which featured Powell with his friends and peers Tim O'Brien and John Herrmann interpreting traditional songs such as "Drunkard's Hiccups" and "Hard Times," as well as creating originals inspired by the novel, such as "Stobrod's Tune." The package features in-depth liner notes from Powell, and Frazier wrote a moving, prescient endorsement of the CD:
"The term Old-Time Music has always seemed odd to me, since the music in question harks back not to an older but to a younger America, a culture with more direct access to unfiltered and unmediated feelings about death and life, grief and exuberance, loss and desire. It is easy to let this music become only retrospective: either lovingly archived museum pieces, or worse, mere nostalgia. The thing I like most about Dirk Powell's work is that he's not much interested in either of those directions. He's making living music that grows out of a tradition he loves and respects, carrying this particular strand of young America's cultural DNA into the unknowable future with hope and joy."
was released on the independent record label Sugar Hill, and met with the critical acclaim and modest sales typical of such eclectic projects. But the project would prove invaluable to Powell years later, when Miramax optioned the film rights to . Anthony Minghella, the Academy Award-winning director of The English Patient, signed on as producer, and when Frazier took Minghella to scout locations in North Carolina, he played on those long drives.
At that point, Powell's participation in the movie soundtrack might seem a foregone conclusion, but it took a number of chance encounters and continued networking to seal the deal. Minghella's crew happened to hear Powell and Tim O'Brien doing a concert in London, and met them after the show. In the interim, noted roots-music producer T-Bone Burnett -- lately of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame -- was hired as the film's music supervisor, and Powell was called in for an initial meeting with Burnett. (At one point, Powell even hired an agent to assist landing him employment with the project.) But it was the deep impression that Powell made on Minghella that ultimately appears to have done the trick.
"We started talking after that gig in London about what opportunities there might be [for Dirk] in the film," says associate producer Tim Bicknell. "Dirk was especially helpful in pointing us in the right direction to other artists and recordings. We went back to Alan Lomax's recordings and the Library of Congress recordings, and probably amassed a library of 1,000 songs, from artists like Doc Boggs and Doc Watson, and Dirk helped with that. And Dirk would tell stories to Anthony about his grandfather in Kentucky, and I know Anthony found them really useful to hear as he was writing the part of Stobrod. Dirk became a really important resource for understanding the music of the region."
Eventually, the filmmakers asked Powell to supervise 's music segments. Filming took place in Romania in the winter of 2001, and with Christine and Amelia in tow, Powell headed to Transylvania for two weeks, joining Kidman, Zellweger and the rest of the cast. It was hardly a glamorous junket. "Some of those scenes it was below zero Fahrenheit, and we were shooting outside at 3 in the morning," says Powell.
Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who played a priest in Gangs of New York, became one of Powell's charges. Gleeson brings a unique perspective to his role of Stobrod, as he's an amateur fiddler who's been enchanted with traditional music since he was a teenager. In Powell, he found a friend and musical mentor.
"Dirk was my guru," says Gleeson. "He has an incredible generosity, and on a personal level, all the time, he's pushing you, but not including any negativity -- his integrity is so fast. It was invaluable to work with him, because you have a reference point at all times. While I was trying to learn some of the things, he'd whisper in my ear, so I could physically match the sounds being played. As an actor, you're trying to keep so many balls in the air, and he helped keep it going. He spiritually grounded it."
After filming, Powell traveled to Nashville this summer to contribute to the soundtrack. Powell assisted composer Gabriel Yared with arrangements, and receives top billing with fiddler Stuart Duncan on the duet instrumental "Ruby With the Eyes That Sparkle." He also played on a session with Sting, who wrote the song "You Will Be My Ain True Love" for the film.
"He was very cool, and not egotistical," says Powell of Sting. "He also told me a bad banjo joke: 'What's the definition of a gentleman? Someone who can play the banjo but doesn't.'"
With its focus on American traditional music and producer Burnett at the helm, the album will draw inevitable comparisons to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which sold more than 8 million copies. It's impossible to predict whether lightning will strike twice and the traditional music will reach a mainstream audience, though listeners expecting O Brother, redux will be surprised. The music of stretches back into the 19th century and spotlights little-known traditions such as Southern hymn and gospel shape-note singing; in Powell's case, the banjo music he performs is darker -- and colder -- than the bright banjo sound associated with 20th-century bluegrass.
"The more I listen to [the soundtrack], the more I appreciate Dirk's playing," says Burnett. "At this point in my career, I don't care in the least what anybody plays, I only care who plays it. That's the interesting part -- the thing the person brings to it. I love how much bass he gets out of his banjo. Anyone can play a series of notes, but certain players can play the same series of notes and make you cry. Dirk's got great subtlety, tremendous feel, and he's very loose and very modern, in the best sense of the world."
Whatever recognition brings Powell, it likely won't change his notoriety in southwest Louisiana. Despite living here for more than a decade now, he remains largely unrecognized in his adopted home state, flying under the cultural radar. It's a position he's maintained since Boozoo Chavis sparked Powell's first journey south to Louisiana.
Powell, a native of Ohio, was in his early 20s and living in Baltimore when he first heard recordings of zydeco legend Chavis. For someone who had spent so much of his formative musical life examining the ties between Scottish and Irish music to Appalachian music, Powell was astounded that Chavis' earthy and quirky playing style didn't originate from some foreign outpost. It prompted him and some friends to get in their car and drive to rural Louisiana during Mardi Gras 1991.
"In Mamou on Mardi Gras day, we were up with some friends in the Hotel Cazan, and looking out over the stage when Christine was playing with Steve Riley. I'll never forget being up there and looking down on her. We had a little bit of a flirtation then, but nothing serious."
By chance, both Balfa (playing with her father, revered Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa) and Powell were scheduled to spend a week playing at a folk-music camp in New York the next week. Their flirtation continued at the camp, and Powell traveled to Rhode Island the following week to visit Christine, where she and Dewey were playing a gig.
"Dewey just really toyed with me the whole weekend," remembers Powell. "He introduced me to somebody right when we got there, and he said, 'I want you to meet Christine's latest flame.' And I was like, 'Whoa, thanks a lot, man.' Then by the end of the weekend, he got me up on stage playing fiddle with him. I was playing second fiddle at the time, which I could sort of do OK, because I hadn't played much Cajun music. Then he said, 'I'm leaving for a while, you're going to play lead fiddle.' I was like, 'What are you talking about? I don't even play this kind of music!' Then he said, 'Any son-of-law of mine is going to play Cajun music.'
"Two days earlier I'd been Christine's latest flame, and we'd only known each other two weeks. ... He flipped my polarity like a magnet."
Powell began regularly making visits to the Balfa household from Baltimore. But the relationship between Powell and Christine's father was strained at times -- especially during a painful stretch when Dewey Balfa's cancer returned, and Powell's grandfather in Kentucky died. With both men experiencing difficult emotional times, communication was difficult. As time went on it improved; then one day Powell called Dewey Balfa on the phone from Breaux Bridge.
"We were getting really close to understanding each other," Powell remembers. "I wasn't living here, but I was coming here a lot for Christine, with him being sick. I was talking to him on the phone, and he was saying goodbye to a friend of his at his house. And he said, 'I love you,' off the phone to his friend, but I thought he was talking to me. I said, 'Well, I love you, too.' And he realized that I thought he was talking to me, and it could have been an awkward moment. But he did tell me he loved me, and it felt like through this chance happening, we opened up on something we probably wouldn't have said to each other, and it really felt sincere, and we expressed it."
Dewey Balfa died the next day.
Powell moved to La Pointe the following year, and he and Christine formed the band Balfa Toujours to honor and continue Dewey's legacy. In 1995, Dirk and Christine married. It's worth noting that had Dewey Balfa lived longer, he undoubtedly would have embraced his son-in-law's love of different musical cultures, and his desire to play Cajun music. Many Cajun players well know Balfa's famous mantra: "A culture is like a whole tree: You have to water the roots to keep the tree alive, but at the same time you can't go cutting off the branches every time it tries to grow."
Powell cut an unusual figure when he arrived in town. Here was an outsider steeped in Appalachian music who not only played fiddle and banjo, but was quickly picking up the accordion. He even played bass, and while his versatility was praised by many of his peers, there was the inevitable whispering about newcomer Powell's motives and musical ability.
"I know there are musicians who say for whatever reason that what I play isn't authentic, but you can't live your life worrying about that," says Powell. "For a short while, I was thinking, I'm trying to play this right: You're trying to play like the records, or you're trying to make sure that it's speaking the right vocabulary before you start expressing yourself with it. But I didn't do that very much, because if it doesn't live and breathe and you're only trying to say something that somebody else already said, there's no way to do that anyway.
"I remember some moments early on when I came down, playing some old dance halls, where an old couple would come up and ask for a certain song," he continues. "We could play it and they could dance to it, and everybody loved it. After a few times of that happening, I thought, 'What more approval or what more real thing is there than that?' These are the people whose music it is, and what it's for."
"He was quickly accepted, and I think one of the reasons is because he's a great musician," says Cajun musician Steve Riley. "I've always been impressed by his talent and ability to play different styles. He's played with the (Mamou) Playboys, and I've played with him in a lot of different scenarios: country, old-timey, bluegrass, zydeco ... he's solid on all of it. Dirk just sifted through everything and had a really clear goal in mind. When it comes to music, he's focused, and I think you have to be driven to be as good as he is.
"Plus, he married into the Balfa family," adds Riley. "To be accepted in that family, you better know what you're doing. They're like the Cajun Kennedys."
Still, there were a few awkward moments. Just two years after moving to town, Powell entered the annual Mulate's accordion competition, known for its blind judging. When Powell took first place, there was some grumbling. "You had some people saying, 'If this guy can win, something's wrong with this system,'" Powell says.
The competition was never held again.
In addition to Balfa Toujours' extensive national and international tour schedule, Powell has quietly been building a body of film-related work over the past decade. In the last decade, he's scored or played parts for music in films such as Edward Burns' The Brothers McMullen, Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil, Spike Lee's Bamboozled, and most recently Stevie, the latest movie from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. His movie assignments began after Spike Lee associate Alex Steyermark stumbled upon one of Powell's CDs by accident.
"He was walking around Tower Records, and he was looking for someone to play fiddle and banjo parts in Ride With the Devil," says Powell. "He didn't know me at all and had looked in the section where my records should have been, but didn't find anything. So he was getting ready to walk out of the store, and someone had almost bought my CD, decided not to, and chucked it in a bin where it didn't belong. He saw it sitting there and said, 'There's a guy playing a fiddle, I'll check this out.' That was the best CD I never sold."
Powell's also amassed a number of other diverse recording credits. Besides playing on four Balfa Toujours albums, he's made three solo albums, a duet album with jam-band banjoist Tony Furtado, and guested on diverse albums from the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band, vocalist Karan Casey, and ex-Bad Livers frontman Danny Barnes. Powell's guest appearances aren't the result of being connected to the Nashville session scene; he gets those calls from musicians who are his friends -- a testament to his talent and affability. However his contacts are already opening some new doors; he recently went to Nashville to play on Loretta Lynn's next album, which is being produced by the White Stripes' Jack White. (White appears both in the movie and on the soundtrack.)
When a pickup truck comes slowly rolling down the Powell driveway this December afternoon, it's a sign that Powell's life is moving in yet another new direction. Powell's contractor is here to check on a few details regarding the recording studio that Powell is building on the property, just a stone's throw from his back porch. As the Powell family walks across the yard toward the studio, Christine Balfa moves a little slowly; she's seven months pregnant with the couple's second child.
The studio is a good representation of Powell's personality. The house was constructed around 1820 and recently moved onto the property, and the walls are made of majestic cypress wood; the expansive ceiling beams evoke the feel of an old barn. Inside sits a large control-room desk lined with a new computer, a 24-track mixing board, and assorted amps and microphones. After some minor electrical work is completed, the studio will be completed, allowing Powell the ability to work on film-score projects without leaving home. Powell already has a number of projects lined up for the studio; in early 2004, he'll produce new albums for Cajun bands Feufollet and the T-Salé Cajun Band. More than a decade after first moving to La Pointe, and following his musical and spiritual compass to faraway destinations, Powell appears ready to settle down, on the banks of the Teche.
"I've always done pretty much everything that came along, just because I love music," says Powell. "I never thought about the economics of it very much -- I've just said yes to everything. Now I need to watch that a little more, because I don't want to travel like I have been traveling. I feel like I'm able to strike some balances, and as the family grows, the balance will shift to doing more here, which I'm very glad about.
"Every time I travel and I come home to Louisiana, I remember what I love about it so quickly. Balfa Toujours is always going to be around, because it's the family's music, and a family band. Christine and I would always say, if we wind up just playing here, that's great. We just came full circle."
- Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier played Dirk Powell's 1998 album Songs from the Mountain for director Anthony Minghella during location scouting trips in North Carolina. Powell is now featured on the movie soundtrack, released earlier this month.
- "I know there are musicians who say for whatever reason that what I play isn't authentic, but you can't live your life worrying about that," says Dirk Powell.
- Christine Balfa and Dirk Powell with their daughter, Amelia. "To be accepted in that family. you better know what you're doing," says accordionist Steve Riley. "They're like the Cajun Kennedys."