Claire Lynch has had a long and successful career while having a significant impact on the bluegrass world from the time she was a teenager. After moving from her birthplace of Kingston, New York to Birmingham, AL when she was 12 years old, Claire Lutke began singing informally with her sisters in the Birmingham area. She made her first splash in a band called Hickory Wind, which later became the Front Porch String Band, releasing a self-titled album in 1977 that including her husband Larry Lynch on mandolin. The band played together for 25 years while the marriage lasted for 28. The band, with its home in Alabama, was highly recognized as groundbreaking, recording a number of songs still in Lynch’s repertoire, such as “Kennesaw Line” and “The Wabash Cannonball.” Here the Claire Lynch band plays a 1995 official video of “My Heart is a Diamond,” re-recorded from the earlier version.
When the band broke up, Lynch moved to Nashville, where she both raised a family and worked as a staff writer for a couple of publishing houses while also becoming a busy and productive backup singer.
Her success at this can be judged by comments like this one from Dolly Parton: “Claire has complemented many of my records with her beautiful harmonies, but she has one of the sweetest, purest and best lead voices in the music business today.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter had this to say: “… one of my very favorite singers in all of acoustic, country and bluegrass music. She is a jewel.”
Claire not only possesses a distinctive solo voice, she blends well enough with others in harmony roles on recordings from artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to the Gibson Brothers and Donna the Buffalo.
When she re-established herself fronting the Claire Lynch Band, she had done a lot of homework, both as a songwriter and a singer. Her voice and range of interests had broadened, extending bluegrass while keeping a solid foot in it. With the likes of Jim Hurst (two-time IBMA guitarist of the year), Missy Raines (seven-time Bass Player of the Year) and Mark Schatz (two-time Bass Player of the Year) backing her, the band has established itself both instrumentally and vocally. Lynch has been named Female Vocalist of the Year three times over a 14-year period. Such an ascendancy is unprecedented. Claire has also been recognized for her songwriting, having written “Dear Sister,” a Civil War song, with Louisa Branscomb, which was named IBMA Song of the Year in 2014. Claire Lynch has also been nominated for two Grammy Awards.
In recent years, Lynch has created a band which features her diverse singing and guitar playing surrounded by the well known and solid Mark Schatz and supported by multi-instrumentalists Bryan McDowell, winner at Winfield, KS of more instrument contests than most people play, and Matt Wingate, who has been supplanted by the very fine Jarrod Walker. The band is recognized for its ability to create a song interpretation based on traditional foundations and then to jam on it in quite non-traditional ways. Here’s a classic performance of “Wabash Cannonball,” Roy Acuff’s signature song, with some added ornamentation.
A few years ago, Claire received a fan email from Canada suggesting she was missing a wealth of performance opportunities as well as a deep well of wonderful songs by Canadian songwriters. There ensued a correspondence in which she was introduced to the rich lode of music and culture from north of our borders. Luckily, she earned a gig in Toronto, and she fell in love too. She and her erstwhile correspondent have been married for a year or so, maintaining homes in both Nashville and Toronto. The resulting album called “North by South” on Compass Records, includes the current members of Claire’s band as well as guest shots by bluegrass luminaries like Béla Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, and others too numerous to mention. The songs are all Canadian, the musicians pure Nashville.
Newly married, Claire Lynch is looking forward to a busy year performing with different configurations, as a solo singer-songwriter, working alone and together with Louisa Branscomb in songwriting workshops, and with McDowell and Walker as the Claire Lynch Trio. Todd Phillips will be filling in on bass in some performances. After more than 40 years of innovative writing and performing, Claire Lynch remains a vital force in bluegrass music and in the wider world of Americana. Tonight, she’ll be at the Bluebird Café in Nashville for a sold-out performance with Carl Jackson, Jerry Salley, and Irene Kelley.
I’ll conclude this column with one of my favorite Claire Lynch songs, “Barbed Wire Boys” by Susan Werner. The song celebrates the stoic courage of the men who built the West. I recorded this version at the small Next Stage in Putney, Vermont.