A FEW MINUTES WITH… Claire Lynch
By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Absolute culture shock.
Those are the words Claire Lynch uses to describe her move from Kingston, New York to Tennessee at age 12. “George Wallace was governor. Martin Luther King was still alive, and I was like in fifth and sixth grade in advanced classes. It was all about academics in New York that made you popular, right? I went down there, and the emphasis was more about football and cheerleading and Villager skirts. I was shocked, and I immediately became the nerd.”
Half a century later, Claire Lynch returns to the area to plays Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Thursday evening. To say that she has assimilated southern culture would be a gross understatement. A three-time honoree as Female Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, this Grammy nominee won a $50,000 United States Artists Walker Fellowship in 2012. She currently is half way through recording her tenth solo CD with her band and an all-star list of guests that includes banjo master Bela Fleck, fiddle great Stuart Duncan, lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas and “whoever else we feel like.” Her songs have been covered by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, the Whites, Cherryholmes and the Seldom Scene.
For seven years she was under contract as a songwriter with PolyGram and Universal Music Publishing where she was asked to co-write. “I didn’t think those songs came out as good as ones that I wrote by myself from my own experience instead of trying to continue something. Some people are really good at contriving, and I actually have sat in rooms with strangers and written some good songs.”
Lynch has earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries for women in bluegrass and for evolving the genre itself. “When I started, there were very few women at the front of a band. They (might) be in the back playing bass or come up for one song or two and sing without an instrument. So, it was good old boys, but I was just so ignorant. So everyone was kind to me. Down here if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all even if they were thinking, ‘How does she think she can play our music?’
“Because I grew up with pop radio and show tunes in my house and church music and stuff, I unconsciously created a hybrid, but see, the thing is I was surrounded by strict rules, people who were governing the bluegrass genre at the time. They had their standards, and so what I tried to do was upset that standard and then sneak in a little bit of a hybrid. Apparently I was able to do that and survive.
“The reason I got into bluegrass was ’cause I had a crush on a mandolin player, so I started dating him, and I ended up marrying him – Barry Lynch.” The two were both in the Front Porch String Band starting in the 1970s. The music business eventually helped break up their marriage.
“I started getting phone calls to be on other people’s records. Ken Irwin (of Rounder Records) approached me about doing a record deal with him, and (Barry) really was jealous. He just was. He said music was ruining our marriage, so I quit. And I took six years off and raised my kids, and it got worse. He got worse. So, I figured out guess what? It’s not the music that’s wrong here, and that’s when I left him about 10 years ago, and I’ve been touring full-time ever since.”
She recently married a retired school teacher and “amateur musician.” He lives in Toronto, and she lives in Nashville. “Hey, it’s very romantic. That’s all I can say.” The relationship inspired the album she’s now recording. “I’m doing an album that was written by Canadians just because I’m trying to bridge the gap between my musical community and the Canadian musical community, and I learned that because I married a Canadian. I’m trying to educate in a way and show people this brilliance of the songwriters up there and start with my community.
“I was in the studio doing six tracks, and I’ve got four in April and I’ll be done. I’ve got my band and then Stuart Duncan’s coming in to do some fiddles on a Willie T. Bennett song, and Bela Fleck came in on a couple, and Jerry Douglas will be in in April, and my band and whoever else we feel like. I haven’t (picked all) the songs. It’s really hard because there are so many great songs, and there’s so many writers. The research on this album has been very time consuming. I’m creating a story around the album, and I think it’ll be good for press. There’s one I wrote about a Canadian. I’m making the rules here, so I can put one of my songs on it.”
So does she still think she’s a nerd after opening the gates for women in bluegrass and creating what she calls a hybrid of bluegrass, country ballads, swing and Appalachian clog dancing music? “I think all musicians are weird in a way. They don’t really fit in. They have something else to say and to do, and you have to feel fringe-like, I think, in order to do what you’re gonna do. You have to go against all the norms as far as making a living is concerned. Like you’re not grounded anywhere, and you have no financial security.
“But I’m comfortable at making music. It makes me very comfortable, and I have a lot more time to think about real things, I guess, rather than the next tea or petit fours.”