The new CD from Claire Lynch hit today (9/15) from Rounder Records.
Never one to shy away from her southern roots, the album is titled Whatcha Gonna Do, taken from the name of one of the tracks. Her voice, both speaking and singing, reveals itself as belonging to a Gentle Southern Lady, which, of course, she is. Living now near Nashville, she was born and raised in northern Alabama where her musical skills were honed.
I first ran into Claire in the late 1970s when she was fronting the modern bluegrass group Front Porch String Band. Both her band and one I was in at the time competed at the first Kentucky Fried Chicken bluegrass band competition in Louisville, KY. She struck me then as a sincerely gracious as well as a talented person, and nothing in the intervening years has challenged that first impression.
This new CD shows what happens when you combine wonderful songs with a gifted and expressive vocalist. As has been her wont, Lynch puts little in the way of these two crucial elements. The arrangements are understated, the performances restrained, with the end result being that the listener is left appreciating what’s important – the singing and the songs.Her band is composed of such virtuoso musicians as Jim Hurst, Marck Schatz and Jason Thomas in her band, and their contributions are always supportive rather than swaggering or showboating.
Claire produced this CD, as she has her previous few recordings, and wrote or co-wrote four of the twelve songs on Whatcha Gonna Do. One is a duet with pop singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester on his song, That’s What Makes You Strong, a collaboration she has returned in kind.
“We met Jesse around a year before the recording at a festival where we were both playing in Florida, although I had known of his career and was acquainted with some of his songwriting for a long time. We were stricken with his poignant, powerfully gentle performance and blown away by his songs. In greeting him backstage, we were delighted to find out he was equally impressed with what we had done during our show. Thus began our mutual admiration.
Not only did Jesse sing on my new record, but I had an opportunity to sing on his most recent release, Love’s Filling Station, too.”
To give a taste of the breadth of material covered on this CD, here are three audio samples along with Lynch’s reflections on the songs.
My Florida Sunshine – Listen Now [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/florida_sunshine.mp3]
“My Florida Sunshine is the grassiest cut on the album and really stands by itself without any other songs on the project that feel akin to it. So some may think we put it on there to defend ‘the bluegrass turf.’ Not so, really. I just have always loved the song and thought it was cool.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Florida and the bluegrass scene down there that thrived while we were ‘comin’ up’ in the Front Porch String Band days. We spent a lot of time down there and still do… the ties are strong for me. I first head this song on an 8-track tape back in the 1900’s from Bill Monroe. Never forgot it and always wanted to resurrect it. I’m glad we had a chance to cut it, finally!”
The next two are songs that also touch on the Southern heritage mentioned above, one Claire had written, and the other one she discovered by chance.
Barbed Wire Boys – Listen Now [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/barbed_wire_boys.mp3]
“Barbed Wire Boys was a song I heard on recommendation from a friend in Birmingham. I downloaded it from the author’s own project (Susan Werner) and sat in my hotel room and listened. When I got through listening, I stood up and paced the floor and exclaimed to myself, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ It just hit me that powerfully. There’s something so achingly sad and so royally noble at the same time about the men of this generation and their chosen lot in life. I feel that they offered my generation a foundation that I hope we won’t allow to crumble.
‘They were just like Atlas holding up the sky… You never heard him speak, you never saw him cry.’
On the other side of the ‘gender coin,’ I feel that many women can relate to this same type of quiet resolve when we become wives and mothers… The fact that Susan addressed the whole subject so eloquently was an expression of pure art.”
Woods of Sipsey – Listen Now [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/woods_of_sipsey.mp3]
“Woods of Sipsey was one I just had to write after driving into the backwoods of Walker County, Alabama – traveling to our Granny’s house where we were to say good bye to her little farm for the last time. She was in the hospital and we knew now she would never return home. The area seems untarnished by the modern world, wilderness-like and wild — and the people are Alabama country folk.
Not many outsiders go into those woods, and I dare say not many of the folks in those little towns care to come out. Granny was content to live there… she knew where she belonged and what she loved. I just wanted to speak what I thought was her heart, based upon my life-experience with her.
Once the guys (Jason, Mark, Jim) put their musical ideas into the track, the song became a thing of beauty. We have wonderful reactions from the crowds to this one when we perform it… considering the melancholy tone of the song, it’s surprising to me, but I’m purely delighted by that.”
You can hear audio samples from all 12 tracks in iTunes. There isn’t a weak one in the bunch.
Claire is featured on the cover of this month’s Bluegrass Unlimited, which includes a feature by Larry Nager about her music and this new release. One particular passage near the beginning of the piece stirred up a hornet’s nest on the email discussion group, BGRASS-L, igniting the tedious “is it bluegrass?” debate.
But “Whatcha Gonna Do” is in the introspective singer/songwriter mode of her early idols Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. In fact, there’s no bluegrass banjo until guitarist/banjo picker Jim Hurst picks up his five string on the ninth track, Monroe’s “My Florida Sunshine,” which Lynch first heard on an eight track tape in the 1970s. She gives it the Full Mon, right down to Jason Thomas’ twin fiddles.
A raging back and forth ensued, not all directed at Claire, but at BU for dedicating space to such an “obviously” non-bluegrass album. Claire was hesitant to respond, but shared a few thoughts about it all the same.
“First of all, I’m amazed that the people who were ‘raging,’ as you say, about it actually valued my music enough to even address it! I’m honored that they felt my artistic expression was worth their concern – even if it isn’t bluegrass enough for their taste.
When I entered bluegrass, I was young — 19 years old. I wasn’t aware I was entering into a fraternity which might somehow hold power over players to dictate their artistry. As time went on, I saw that many people celebrated the music and enjoyed not only the tradition but it’s inevitable evolution. I’ve tried to respect the points of view from those who feel they must defend bluegrass music in its original form – I’m glad it’s been preserved by those who are so capable of doing that. But it hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the music in all of its facets, the community as a whole, and my profession.
Taking offense can often tear folks and situations down, while acceptance and love always build up. I’m for the latter.
Am I important to bluegrass? I don’t know… I think I’m just another wanna be player who’s been encouraged by fans to keep it up instead of ‘give it up!’ “
Gracious to a fault. I count myself among the “please don’t give it up” contingent.
Whatcha Gonna Do should be available wherever you purchase bluegrass and acoustic music. Orders placed today (9/15) from Claire’s web site will be autographed before going out tomorrow.