As Industrial America rustled and raged through its fitful fights of puberty, the Appalachian region represented a slowed respite. A place untouched by big city vacillations, where the original elements of expansion, fatefully claimed complete in 1895, mentally continued. The area became the milieu for a myriad of dime novels, as America’s literary leaders jumped up and down at discovering the “true American spirit”.
What truly transpired, not captured in the quaint picturesque novels, were stories about hardships. Through the difficulties—those of mining, of hitting hard ground, of crops refusing to grow, of moonshine—a vernacular manifested itself. Miscegenation, of a sort, occurred where the stories and songs from the British Isles connected with their own specific and arduous trials to form a double helix. When these people gathered to sing their story songs in the folk-lyric style exemplified by Clarence Ashley, they were gluing together disparate lines from other songs to create a complete piece describing their individual situation.
This explains why, at times, the songs are addling, despite their simplistic grammar and apparent lack of metaphoric depth. For example, “Little Maggie”, with the following lines, “Over yonder their stands Little Maggie with a dram glass in her hand / She’s gone now to dance her worries, gone to dance her worries away”, only creates questions for the listener. Why does she have a dram glass? What worries? Why has she chosen to dance? The answers were obvious to the Appalachian people, each word unfolding with metaphoric arms stretched to encompass their respective experiences. Where outsiders pass it off as the typical doggerel of forlorn love, the song’s cogito remains untouched; thus mimicking the region’s geography.
Being able to speak in and with this code demarcates certain musicians from others, things people hear from one artist to the next but can’t quite articulate. Numerous bluegrass artists sound incomplete, and the reason could be that they are not fluent in the vernacular and can only make a living as mild mountebanks. Critic Greil Marcus believes this explains the distinctions between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen: one had Dock Boggs to bequeath his guide to him, while the other didn’t.
Dirk Powell grew up in the region. His grandfather gives him an even deeper genealogical link to the area, a proximity that instills comprehension of the music’s details. Where most listen to the Harry Smith Anthology of Music or Alan Lomax’s recordings to learn the rudimentary vocabulary, Powell had these sounds engrained genetically, a part of every protein and resulting chromosome of his body. He has the facial expressions, the sly smile, and the aphorisms of the Appalachians.
His original “Waterbound”, the first track on his latest release, Time Again, continues the tradition Ashley began. It uses a grab bag of standard lyrical devices and in a madlibs manner assembles them until they carry personal meaning for Powell and his compatriots. Starkly moving with a foreboding quality, like life’s denouement is not a starting point or a final conclusion, but something uncertain beneath the ground. Reminiscent of the sentiments summoned by Andrew Roy when relaying a story about a lurid coal-mining session.
As the album progresses, whole songs melt into each other, the thematic reach increasing. With “Goin’ Where I’ve Never Been Before”, the lyrics flex and fold into “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”. Issues of recording dates and provenance, of which was the precursor of the other, become a mobius strip. Time has been stopped, the orrery frozen. Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Dock Boggs, and Dirk Powell, along with the Grateful Dead and everyone else, are now spun together into the skein of “goin’ where the climate suits my clothes”. They meet in an earthy burlesque of Raphael’s “The School of Athens”, the years between 1900 and 2000 compressed and reconsidered in the span of a three-minute track.
Analog recordings, with their familiar hiss and featuring his grandfather James Clarence Hay, continue to evanesce the distinction between then and now. The water of time doesn’t roil, but rolls, and the themes simply move forward. Fathers still fight to feed their children, mothers still battle to hold the house together, and addictions never change. The words may shift, but sooner or later, their meanings and succinct maxims begin to interlock, influencing each other, revealing the reoccurring commonality in American songwriting, where “Handsome Molly” can be a hit for Harry Belafonte as much as it can for Bill Monroe, as they aid the Band at Big Pink in finding the town square.
They find it in Powell’s Time Again, just beyond the same crossroads those dime store paperbacks looked for, but never found. Powell doesn’t entirely explicate where the town square is either, but listen long enough and the general location becomes clear: over a few hillocks written about by Mark Twain and adjacent to a stream shadowed by “Cold Mountain”.
// Notes from the Road
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