Claire Lynch sticks with the South |

Claire Lynch sticks with the South

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Senor McGuireClaire Lynch brings her band to Carbondale's PAC3 on Sunday.

CARBONDALE – When Claire Lynch – Claire Lutke at the time – was 19, her parents gave her the option of moving with them from Alabama back to New York state, where Claire was born, and where she had lived till the age of 12. The offer came with the opportunity to get a first-rate education at Cornell University. Lynch declined – politely, in the proper manner of a Southerner.

“I didn’t want it, didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said. “I was in Alabama by myself, but it was my world. I didn’t feel like transferring myself into a world of strangers.”

Lynch liked most everything she’d found in the South: “There’s a sort of society and a way of relating to people that is unique,” she said. “Always a kindness, an understanding, a patience, a tolerance for other people. It’s genteel by nature – and it can be fakey, but it’s a preferred way for me.”

And there was the music. There had been music up north. In Kingston, the small town along the Hudson River where she had grown up, Lynch’s sister had a guitar, her mother had a piano, and the three would work out three-part harmonies on folk songs.

But nothing hit her the way music did in the South. One day not long before she opted to stay in Alabama, Lynch took notice of bluegrass for the first time. The McLain Family Band was playing on the sidewalk, a teaser for their festival appearance later that day.

“I walked by, heard them play, sat down on the ground, dropped my jaw and said, ‘What is this?'” she recalled. Coincidentally, that same day she ran into Larry Lynch, who, by luck of the alphabet, had sat next to Claire through four years of high-school homeroom. Larry had had a guitar in high school, but been bitten by the bluegrass bug in college; as it turned out, Larry’s band was opening for the McLain Family Band at the festival. Claire went to see the music and came away a devotee.

“It was an immediate connection with the genre, with people who were already playing it,” she said.

A bit later on, Larry took Claire, now his girlfriend, to an honored component of Southern culture – the fiddlers convention, this one in Smithville, Tenn. Larry’s group, Hickory Wind, was picking and singing in the campground when Claire was inspired to join in.

“They said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing,'” Lynch said. “I joined the band and that’s how my career got started. Before that I was only dreaming.”

After being taught the bluegrass style of flat-picking – before that, Lynch only knew how to finger-pick her guitar – and soaking up the legacy of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Ralph Stanley, she became the focal point of a new group, the Front Porch String Band. The group had a there-and-gone existence – releasing an album, retiring from touring, being resurrected and coming to prominence with a pair of Grammy nominations. In 2000, with a Female Vocalist of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association to her credit and a solid reputation as a writer whose songs were recorded by other singers, Lynch took a hiatus to raise her daughter and see her through high school.

Six years’ break from touring was more than enough. “I missed it too much,” she said. “Once you’re a road puppy, you’re always a road puppy. You get addicted – not to the rigors of the road, but the freedom, the openness. You don’t have to be responsible, or at least not in the way other people have to be responsible. It’s a strange phenomenon.”

Lynch tiptoed back into music, first by singing harmony on a pair of albums, “The Grass Is Blue” and “Little Sparrow,” that marked Dolly Parton’s return to acoustic music. Lynch recorded with Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless. In the mid-’00s, she formed the first edition of the Claire Lynch Band, with Jim Hurst and Missy Raines, both notable artists on their own, and the group’s debut album, “New Day,” earned nominations for Song of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year from the IBMA.

Lynch’s current group is a blend of experience and youth. The combo feature – two under-30 pickers: Bryan McDowell, who has won major titles on fiddle, mandolin and guitar; and Matt Wingate, who has been touring since the age of 15. On bass is Mark Schatz, a two-time IBMA Bassist of the Year who was the bassist in Nickel Creek and has played with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris and many others. She brings the group to a date at PAC3 in Carbondale on Sunday.

Lynch was pleased to take her time off from music. “I’d seen other people my age who were burned out or had lost their voice,” she said. Lynch’s voice is in fine shape; “Watcha Gonna Do,” her 2009 album, earned her another award for Female Vocalist of the Year. And she is in good spirits. Bluegrass had gotten a lift from the popularity of Alison Krauss and the exposure of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and there seemed to be plenty of room for another singer.

“I was very well embraced,” Lynch said of her return to touring. “People didn’t seem tired of me.”

And Lynch hasn’t lost the creative fire. At 58, she remains an ambitious songwriter, with a belief that writing is about more than stringing some words, chords and melodies together.

“I put my heart of the line. To me, when I write, there’s a desire to communicate to other people my sentiments in the hope they might identify,” she said, as the band drove from Tampa to Nashville, Lynch’s home base. “I don’t want to call it ministry, but a song can help a person, confirm an emotion. I want to express to people, You may be feeling this, and I’m feeling it too.

“Writing a song is therapeutic for a lot of writers; it lets them hash out whatever issues they have in them.” Quoting one bandmate, she added: “If you had that in you, you’d want to get it out too.”

Would any of this had happened had Lynch decided to leave the South and return to New York?

“Doubt it,” she said.

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