Dirk Powell,
Hand Me Down
(Rounder, 1999)

Old-time music, as simple as it seems, is a genre that demands sharp listening. When I first became interested in it as an offshoot of my love of bluegrass, I thought that it was pretty much all the same, and that the contemporary proponents were just following in the footsteps of the people who have played it for years and years, and that it was pleasant music to have going in the background, but not really worthy of close attention.

Wrong again. Old-time music has as much complexity and musical interest as any popular art form, and, in the hands of someone like Dirk Powell, it becomes music that demands close and repeated listening. Not to say that it isn't great fun, because it is.

The title of this CD, Hand Me Down, places its roots firmly in the past, being tunes that, for the most part, Powell heard from his family or friends. The Powell originals are written in the traditional spirit as well, so this is indeed old-time music, with all the finest qualities of that branch of country/folk music. From the first track, "Wild Bill Jones," you know what you're in for. This joyfully infectious music has a wild and free spirit. Powell's fiddle playing soars, and you can easily see why this sound captured the hearts of the people of the mountains and hollers. The voice of the fretless, wood-head banjo in the next tune, "Hop High, My Lulu Gal," almost sounds like the ghost of a banjo, with a tight, closed, eerie sound that beautifully meshes with Powell's singing, a template for the high, lonesome sound.

A second great mountain voice is heard on "The Silk Merchant's Daughter." Ginny Hawker sounds as old as the hills, not in her vocal quality, which is pure and impassioned, but in terms of tones and overtones. It's a mode of the past, and it's easy to imagine Almeda Riddle sounding like this in her youth. "A Tune for Paul" is a banjo/fiddle duet whose repetition, far from boring the listener, draws us in, becoming chant-like in its melodic insistence.

Two different aspects of tradition follow: "Western Country" is a rollicking North Carolina style song, ideal for a square dance, while "Moonshiner" is a medium-tempo ballad about that illegal trade. For me, one of the highlights of the album is the next song, "Keys to the Kingdom," an old gospel piece that uses the fiddle as a drone under Ginny Hawker's powerful and otherworldly vocal. It's a hair-raiser. Other artists may talk about "ancient tones," but look no further for the perfect example.

We come back to earth for "Say Darling Say," a bucolic vision of the mountains, followed by an all-out breakdown with "Breaking Up Christmas." When I heard "The Cradle, the Coffin, the Cross on the Hill," I would have sworn it had been written seventy years ago, but it's a Powell original, done to a T in the old spirit, with fine duet singing on the chorus. I got fooled again on the next tune, "Leaning on a Wall," another by Powell that sounds like it's been floating through the southern hills for at least a century.

I'm getting as tired of using the word, "perfect," as you are of reading it, but there's no other way to describe this rendition of "Little Maggie." With the superb picking and the blend of Powell and Hawker's voices in the alternating 6 beat/4 beat chorus, this stands as the finest version of this old chestnut that I've ever heard.

From the realm of hot picks, we go to "Been All Around This World, Baby Mine," a plain, simple, and profoundly moving song that Powell plays on his grandfather's banjo, the first he ever heard. It's this kind of personal touch, along with the stories that Powell tells in the liner notes of the provenance of the different songs, that adds to the charm of this album. "Going Back to Fielden" is another of Powell's. It reminds you of earlier tunes, but has its own strong melody, and I find it continually amazing that such a limited number of chords can still give birth to intricate melodies that sound fresh and new, while still possessing the old heart of this music.

"Poor Soldier" again finds Ginny Hawker accompanied only by Powell's fiddle: gorgeous and strong. "Near and Far" and "Cumberland Gap" give us a Powell original and a traditional tune, both performed impeccably, and the album ends on a slightly different note. "Ride With the Devil" was composed by Mychael Danna for the film of the same name, and Powell plays it here, first on fretless banjo, and then expanding into a full and glorious string band sound.

In Hand Me Down, Dirk Powell has been handed down some priceless old tunes, and has created new ones to hand down to future generations of those who find in old-time music something deep and primal and timeless. It won't take years for this album to be proclaimed a classic.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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