An old-time banjo player based in Lafayette, La., Powell shared the dramatic story behind “Walking Through Clay” in an email exchange with CMT Edge. Known for his soundtrack work on films like Cold Mountain and Ride With the Devil, Powell also explains why he’s stepping out this time with electric instruments.
CMT Edge: What is the story you’re telling in “Walking Through Clay”? I understand there is a family connection.
Powell: The song tells the story of my great-great-grandmother, Eliza Davis, whose entire family was killed in the mountains of Southwest Virginia during the Civil War. She was only a teenager and had to find work on a nearby plantation. She ended up in a situation where the owner of the plantation took advantage of her, getting her pregnant, and she walked into the mountains of Kentucky. From this kind of hardship and struggle, she created such triumph, to me.
I think about how people looked down on her and the kind of ostracizing that happens to women who are victims of this kind of thing. But, in the end she was not a victim. She raised a beautiful child and started a family which ended up persevering and overcoming difficulty in every conceivable way. So, that’s what the song is about. That’s why the last line of the chorus is, “He’s got his mama’s eyes.” Those are my people, and I’m really proud of everything they achieved and the deep strength of their character.
I was surprised to hear the electric instruments. Why was it important to show that side of yourself this time?
I just felt like it was time to take down the walls around the different musical styles I love. I’ve always played electric music, too, even as the music of my own grandfather inspired me to dig deeper into Appalachian traditions. I always said that you could tell any story if you dig all the way into a tradition, and I still believe that. At the center of a tradition, there’s really the ability to convey any emotion, any kind of feeling.
But I also realize I have my own personal story that only I can tell, and to tell that completely means opening up these other parts of music that I love. It’s just where I’m at at this point in my life … doesn’t mean anything about what the future might hold, of course, but for now it was very important to me to share more of myself without boundaries in place.
Listen to Dirk Powell’s “Walking Through Clay.”