Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fathers' Day weekend with The Claire Lynch Band

Now that we're in high season, not a weekend goes by when dedicated festival-goers don't have to make tough choices. For bluegrass and roots music fans in California, the recent Fathers Day weekend presented such a dilemma.

There were at least three significant festivals that bluegrassers had to choose among: the California Bluegrass Association's Fathers Day Festival in Grass Valley CA, Live Oak Music Festival near Santa Barbara and the Huck Finn Bluegrass Festival in Victorville in the Mojave Desert.

To ease matters somewhat, the organizers of Grass Valley and Huck Finn seemed to have collaborated on scheduling headliners, and quite a few including Rhonda Vincent and Del McCoury appeared at both events. One performer, Claire Lynch and her band, appeared at all three.

To get a feel for the life of a touring musician during festival season, I took in parts of two of the festivals, spending Thursday night and part of Friday at Grass Valley and Saturday night and Sunday at Live Oak--plus putting in nearly 500 miles on the road in between. California is a big state.

[Photo: Claire Lynch and Missy Raines]

Before hitting the road on Friday, I caught a Greencards set and did an interview with Kym Warner and Eamon McLoughlin, and then took a front row seat for Claire Lynch. I had never really paid close attention to her act before and was more than impressed.

What everyone knows is that she possesses a soaring soprano voice that is often compared to Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. What I didn't expect was her eclectic song selection that included some hardcore bluegrass but also extended into western swing and folk styles. Her guitarist Jim Hurst demonstrated why he is a multiple IBMA guitarist of the year honoree. Another IBMA winner, Missy Raines, laid down the bass lines, while new band member Jason Thomas impressed on mandolin and fiddle. No doubt this is a hot band.

Lynch mentioned to the audience that she was headed off to two more California festivals and invited folks to come along. I don't think anybody did other than me.

While I drove, Lynch's band flew from Sacramento to LA and rented a van for the drive to Santa Barbara (and later Saturday night to Victorville). I had arranged with Claire a time for an interview before her Live Oak show, but by the time I arrived and got myself set up time was short and she was enjoying a pre-set backstage massage.

So I got to see another, much longer performance before finally catching up with her afterwards. I heard a couple of the same songs but lots of different material including a bit of cajun, a gospel number, a song by Pierce Pettis and one from the Delmore Brothers. Among her own songs, I especially liked the innocence of young love in "Hickory Ridge" and her bluegrass chart-topping "Train Long Gone." After a 90-minute show, she encored with a rousing, improvisational take on "Wabash Cannonball."

Afterwards I found her shopping in the hippie-ish craft stalls along the festival midway. I watched her try on and then buy a caped red dress that looked more California than Alabama. She told me later that she had a photo shoot for a future album scheduled for later in the week, and that she bought the dress to wear for that.

When we finally got to sit down for a chat in a backstage dressing room, I found her charming but not as purely down-home Alabama as I expected. It turns out that she lived her childhood in upstate New York, and arrived in Alabama only when her computer-programming father took a job at NASA's Huntsville Space Center.

Growing up, she was more likely to be listening to Joni Mitchell than Bill Monroe, which explains her continuing taste for folk. She didn't plan to become a professional until she married a musician, and his bandmates heard her singing around a festival campsite.

So she joined up with husband Jim Lynch in Hickory Wind, and later that band transformed into the fondly remembered Front Porch String Band, which also included Hurst and Raines. Then after seven years and with a marriage on the rocks, she dropped out of the business and went home to Alabama.

In the end, she couldn't save the marriage, but maybe she gained some wisdom that has served her well as a songwriter. After five more years, in 2005 she got the band back together and has since taken the bluegrass world by storm. Her New Day album with The Claire Lynch Band was one of the top-selling bluegrass records of 2006.

I asked Lynch about her feat of performing on three consecutive days at three different festivals. She said she was accustomed to the bluegrass scene, and felt much at home at events like Grass Valley, but that she was especially excited to play a more eclectic festival like Live Oak.

"I like reaching out to other audiences, and these folks really seemed to appreciate our music," she said. "Also, the organizers here really take care of the artists."

It all sounds a little California, but clearly this is one Alabama girl who appreciates a skillful massage, a flowing red gown and an audience that was more Grateful Dead than Flatt & Scruggs.

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