Modern bluegrass singer Claire Lynch is considered a pioneer of women in the genre, thanks to her work in the 1970s and ’80s with the Front Porch String Band and her still ongoing solo career.
At the time, she didn’t consider herself a pioneer, as she has revealed in past interviews. However, she was aware of the fact there weren’t many other women fronting bluegrass bands.
“I think I later learned through a book written by Robert K. Oermann [‘Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music,’ written with Mary A. Bufwack], in the Southern states, with the music that came out of the Appalachians, if you were a woman performer, you were to be chaperoned by a husband, a father, an uncle,” Lynch said recently from Toronto, on a brief break from touring.
Old Songs Festival
WHEN: Friday through Sunday
WHERE: Altamont Fairgrounds, 129 Grand St., Altamont
HOW MUCH: Full festival: $115, $105 (students and seniors), $60 (ages 13-18). With camping: $135, $125 (seniors and students), $60 (ages 13-18)
MORE INFO: 765-2815, www.oldsongs.org
“Some man had to be in the band with you, or else you were considered to be a hussy. It was one of the last genres to lose that good old boy mentality. I didn’t back down; I wasn’t insulted by it, but I did run into it.”
It’s a different story in bluegrass today, thanks to artists such as Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Kathy Mattea and, of course, Lynch, who since 2005 has led an eponymous quartet featuring upright bassist Mark Schatz, multi-instrumentalist Bryan McDowell and flatpicking guitarist Matt Wingate. After winning a $50,000 United States Artists Fellowship in 2012, Lynch released her third album with the Claire Lynch Band, “Dear Sister,” in March.
This weekend, Lynch and her band will perform at the 33rd annual Old Songs Festival, taking place Friday through Sunday. In addition to her mainstage performance during Saturday’s concert, which begins at 6:30 p.m., and another performance Sunday at 2:30 p.m., she’ll host a number of workshops throughout the weekend.
Other featured performers at this year’s festival include Scott Alarik, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Molly Andrews, Hanneke Cassel, Gordon Bok, The Clayfoot Strutters and Archie Fisher. A full schedule of artists, performances and workshops is available at www.oldsongs.org.
Lynch, as a bluegrass performer, is sort of an odd woman out in the heavily folk-inspired lineup.
“I don’t think that Old Songs has ever had a bluegrass band before,” Lynch said. “I think they told me that we were the first bluegrass-flavored band they’ve ever hired, but I think we have a place in folk music.”
The performance will also be something of a homecoming for Lynch, who was raised in Kingston until she moved with her family to Alabama at age 12. To this day, most of her family remains in the South, but Lynch still has fond memories of upstate New York.
“It stirs up a lot of emotion, a lot of memories, as soon as I see those hills,” Lynch said.
“I was 12 [when my family moved], and it was a pretty big culture shock for me. I mean, just like academically even — it seemed that my schooling in New York was more academic-centered, whereas when I got to the social scene in middle school in Alabama, we’re talking football and cheerleaders — that was the whole world. ... And it was during the ’60s, so we’re talking Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, George Wallace was governor. It was a different world.”
Country music was another big Southern influence for Lynch when she moved to Alabama. She was initially introduced to folk and bluegrass music through her family, but the country music on the radio became a big part of the music she’s made throughout her career.
“There was a whole lot more country music and those kinds of things on television, the regional TV piped in from Nashville and singing programs like ‘Hee Haw’ or ‘The Porter Wagoner Show,’” Lynch said. “It wasn’t a shock to me; it was just part of my acclimation to the culture. I was young, I was very impressionable at that age and I decided I was just going to fit in.”
Song of the South
The Southern influence can be found on “Dear Sister,” named for a ballad Lynch wrote with Louisa Branscomb. The song tells the story of Branscomb’s great-great-great aunt from southern Alabama, who had four brothers who fought in the Civil War and wrote letters home to their sister. These letters were eventually found when the family went to sell the house and were compiled into a book, which formed the basis for the song.
“Louisa approached me about writing a song, and one of the brothers was believed to have fought at the Battle of Stones River, which is close to where I lived, to where Louisa and I lived,” Lynch said.
“We went out to the battleground and did interviews with park rangers — we did a lot of research. Have you heard the story about when it was Christmas time in World War I, the Germans and Americans would end up singing Christmas songs together on the battlefield? Well, the same thing happened during the Civil War, and the opposite sides traveled with regimental bands that used acoustic instruments, a lot of the same ones used in bluegrass. So there was a lot of music to stoke their morale, and that happened at Stones River in December, the night before the big battle where 14,000 men were killed. That’s kind of what the song is about.”
The album is Lynch’s first for Compass Records after 18 years with Rounder Records. Lynch, who produced her previous five studio albums by herself, worked with Compass co-owner Garry West to produce the album.
“It was interesting getting over to someone else to kind of throw decisions at and toss them back and forth,” Lynch said. “It was hard — it was hard to let go of some of the power, but it was also a great relief to let go of some of the responsibility. But the band had the stuff worked out — the material was set before we ever played for a producer. It’s a band album — we prepared for the album quite a bit, so he [West] was just making production decisions, not necessarily arrangement decisions.”