Hand Me Down
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
In the early 80's, musicians would come together at Mabry Mill in Meadows of Dan, Virginia (along the Blue Ridge Parkway) to play old-time music on Sunday afternoons. The crowds that gathered 'round consisted of older locals, who had grown up listening to this music, and curious tourists. Locals enjoyed clogging on a small wooden stage as the tourists looked on. This music scene, like the grinding mill, the moonshine still, and the molasses exhibit, seemed a quaint reminder of bygone Appalachian culture.
Today the old-time music scene flourishes with talented and accessible artists like Dirk Powell. Powell has been active on the traditional music scene since the early 90's, and is known for his mastery of old-time banjo and fiddle styles. He also performs and records (along with his wife, Christine Balfa) in the Cajun band, Balfa Toujours. Powell recorded his first solo effort If I Go Ten Thousand Miles, for Rounder in 1996.
Now Powell is back with his second solo album of old-time music, Hand Me Down, featuring eighteen cuts of traditional and new songs (five of which have been written by Powell). Powell switches between banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and on one cut, plays guitar. Vocals are handled separately and together by Jim Miller (who also sang on If I Go Ten Thousand Miles) and Ginny Hawker. Room is left for five instrumentals and a vocal by Tracy Schwarz.
To my ears, the best material on Hand Me Down features the simplest arrangements, and the brightest of these showcase Powell's banjo playing with Jim Miller providing vocals. On cuts like Hop High, My Lulu Gal, Powell plays individual notes on a fretless banjo, and the result is simple and fluid. Say Darling Say and Been Around This World, Baby Mine, offer the same fluid lines and purity of tone. Miller's vocals on these and other cuts throughout the album seem just about perfect for the material.
Three other nice cuts feature Powell and his fiddle accompanying Ginny Hawker. All three cuts, The Silk Merchant's Daughter, Keys to the Kingdom, and Poor Soldier, are deeply emotional songs with slow ballad pacing. Both the low murmur of the fiddle and the resonance of Hawker's voice meld together for beautiful effect.
Other standouts include Tracy Schwarz singing The Cradle, the Coffin, the Cross on the Hill, with Hawker singing harmony. Powell (who penned the song) plays guitar on this cut, throwing in a nice lead part. There are good versions of Wild Bill Jones and Little Maggie. The last song, Ride with the Devil, has been recorded for the movie of the same name.
This is a wonderful traditional album. My only small complaint is that the liner notes could have been more helpful. A list of individual musicians on each cut, and perhaps more information on the instruments Powell uses would have been nice. But the music sounds the same without these notes. Hand Me Down is a lovely collection of old and new traditional songs, performed with great care. Old-time music fans should be thankful that Powell hasn't forgotten his roots.
| || |
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz