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On The String: Worldly Folk Star Dirk Powell Looks Closer To Home On New Album

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Dirk Powell turned fifty in 2019, but already he’s accumulated experiences and accomplishments that would make him a cinch for a lifetime achievement award some day. The problem would be deciding which category. His track record as a performer is legendary in Cajun music, though he’s an adopted Louisianan. He’s a widely recorded songwriter and instrumental sideman. And over the past twenty years, he’s become one of the most recognized producer/engineers in roots music, with a staggering resume. 

Every few years, amid his packed calendar, he makes an album of his own work. They always offer something new, a fresh angle on a career devoted to nurturing and stretching traditional forms. The latest feels more like a contemporary singer-songwriter album than probably anything he’s done before, with brush strokes of the Cajun and Celtic music that have been signatures in his output. When I Wait For You is about mid-life contentment, the nature of longing and the power of art. It found Powell composing more on the piano and guitar than the banjo, and it opens up new song forms and musical feelings for the veteran.

In the new episode of The String, Powell talks about this latest tack: “There have been points in my life where I was very invested in traditional music,” he says. “One of my missions is to say that in the center of this beautiful thing that's being handed to you, is this wealth. If you go deep enough in, you'll find everything. But for me over time, I guess I realized there's also this story that I have to tell - these stories that I want to share about my own life, that are unique to me.”

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The passion for folk music was kindled in Powell’s youth when he was looking for an identity. His parents had moved from Kentucky to Oberlin, OH where they were part of the academic community, but they traveled back regularly for family visits, and Dirk grew increasingly attached to his grandfather’s fiddling and old time music. “At the time when I wanted to rebel, at first I was maybe rebelling by listening to punk rock or things that were defiantly challenging commercial mainstream music. But at the same time, in a way, they were a mirror image of it. They were still engaged with it. And I mean, I love punk rock music. I'm not disparaging it at all. But for me, I realized, wow, my grandfather's handing me something that is rebellious on a completely different level, where there's no attachment to anything. This is just a gift to allow me to express what I have to say.”

Powell developed a point of view as a folklorist and song hunter that allowed him to plug into a variety of roots music communities, most pivotal was becoming a protege of Cajun fiddle icon Dewey Balfa before his death in 1992. Powell married Dewey’s daughter Christine and formed the band Balfa Toujours, a defining voice in the precious regional sound for almost 20 years.

Powell moved on to wider pursuits, developing connections with Celtic music as reflected in his long-running participation in the Transatlantic Sessions, a live performance TV series blending musicians from American and British scenes. And as a musician and producer, his album or performing credits include an all-star roster, including Tim OBrien, Tony Furtado, Scott Miller, Danny Barnes, Ginny Hawker, Darrell Scott, Uncle Earl, Irma Thomas and Eric Clapton, The Raconteurs and Loretta Lynn, Jerry Douglas, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt. And then in recent years Dirk Powell has worked closely with new folk icon Rhiannon Giddens, producing her Grammy-winning album Freedom Highway and the celebrated album she spearheaded as the band Our Native Daughters. 

It’s a remarkable journey, and we touch on all aspects of it in our conversation. Rounding out the hour is a fellow traditionally grounded artist with a sense of freedom and progress named Maeve Gilchrist. The New York based, Scotland-raised artist plays the harp, and it's like no harp music you've ever heard.