PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 6, 2007

Boundary Busting Bluegrass

by Jim Newsom

Not everyone likes bluegrass music. The formulaic quality of many traditional bluegrass bands can wear thin after a while. But Claire Lynch makes music that is firmly rooted in the bluegrass tradition, yet appeals to people whose tastes run in different directions.

“We’re a bluegrass band that can play other types of festivals,” she told me in a recent telephone conversation from her home in Level Green, Alabama. “I get a lot of people who come up to me and say, ‘My husband dragged me here; he likes bluegrass and I don’t like bluegrass, but you’re great!’”

Lynch, who headlines the second annual Bluegrass in Ghent concert Saturday night at the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theatre, combines classic bluegrass elements with the sensibilities of ‘60s folkies and ‘70s singer-songwriters to produce an enticing contemporary sound. When I was playing her CD, New Day, in my office last week, a co-worker asked, “Is that Alison Krauss?” But Lynch has that indefinable something special that sets her music apart. Perhaps it’s the result of her diverse musical background.

“When I was twelve I wanted to be Joni Mitchell or Mary from Peter, Paul & Mary,” she said. “I was from upstate New York to begin with. My dad was with IBM, and we moved to Huntsville, Alabama because of the space program. So I was transplanted in the south at age twelve.

“I was already playing folk guitar and my family taught me and my two sisters how to sing trio when I was a little girl. We did a lot of church music. When I was finally exposed to bluegrass music, the leanings toward conservativeness—is that a word? The fact that it’s family music was good; I thought it was something my parents would approve of. The harmonies I readily understood. And I thought it was extremely cool because it was all acoustic—we lived through the ecology movement, as they called it, so at that time it was very cool.

“And I fell in love with Larry Lynch and started dating him, and he was in a bluegrass band.

“The first time I heard a live bluegrass band, it floored me. It just felt so powerful. It was the McLain Family Band from Kentucky. I was nineteen, so I didn’t really think anything out. I just did it because I was drawn to it.”

She began singing bluegrass with her future husband in 1973, and their Front Porch String Band played regularly throughout the southeast. But success was hardly instantaneous.

“I just had a series of breaks,” she said. “It’s from being out there and playing. We recorded three albums in the Front Porch String Band days by ourselves. And we were out there playing on the circuit as much as we could, and we’d run into folks.”

One of those folks was Seldom Scene founding member John Starling, who had moved to Alabama to open a medical practice and “kinda took us under his wing. He taught us a lot about stuff we didn’t know, and he had connections to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou.” He also had friends in the publishing business, and Claire’s songwriting began to achieve some notice in country music circles:

“I ended up on Music Row as a songwriter. I wrote seven years for Polygram and Universal. I only live an hour and 40 minutes from Nashville, so I went up there at least twice a week and wrote with other people. And there were giants around us, so I sat in writing sessions with people who were veterans. I learned a lot!”

Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea are the biggest names among those who have recorded her songs, and she has sung harmony on recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley. But it’s her own albums that are most impressive. She’s been nominated for two Grammies and been named “Female Vocalist of the Year” by the IBMA. And she’s done it her way, making music that crosses genres and bursts through boundaries.

“Both Larry and I were Beatles listeners and pop radio listeners,” she explained. “We weren’t steeped in bluegrass like a lot of bluegrass players are, especially from our generation. A lot of them are second generation—their mama and daddy played it in the kitchen every Saturday night. But I’m not, and neither was Larry. We were just ignorant! We didn’t know you were supposed to do it that way; we just did it the way we heard it.

“There’s been a force in bluegrass that pushed us and fought for us to preserve the tradition. And it is a pure form of American music [that] came from British Isles music mixed with black blues. It’s not a pure form itself, but it did evolve into something new and original in the ‘30s. It’s an art form and they want it preserved, and I appreciate that and love it. But I’m just a musician expressing myself and making a living at it. I’m a product of my own generation just like Bill Monroe was.”

Six years elapsed between New Day and its predecessor, Lovelight. That’s because Claire Lynch was going through some emotional challenges in her personal life.

“Larry and I broke up in May,” she said, “our marriage broke up; the music broke up in 2000. I tried for five years to make it work and it didn’t. So I decided to go back and play music because I had tried to sacrifice it for my marriage and it still didn’t work. I kept it quiet for a long time, but I think it’s part of my story now; it’s part of my writing.

“I hadn’t played my music for a while, and I went back to listen to my CDs and I said, ‘Dag, this is my life!’ I didn’t realize it at the time when I was writing it, but it really is autobiographical in many ways. It’s kinda cool, but I didn’t even realize it.

“This is the name of the new album, New Day. A lot of it is like ‘this stage in my life’ music. Even though I’ve come through this sort of dark period, I still feel like my music is encouraging and I’ve gotten letters saying it’s uplifting. And that’s the way I want it to be.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.