Throughout her career, Claire Lynch has earned well-deserved respect from her fans and peers. Twice voted bluegrass music’s top female vocalist, her range extends beyond bluegrass into soulful country and thoughtful folk.
She’s appeared on albums by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, the Gibson Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, and her compositions have been recorded by such luminaries as Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and the Whites.
But Lynch’s career reached new heights last year when she was selected as one of 54 artists honored with a prestigious United States Artists Fellowship. The award, which includes a $50,000 unrestricted grant, is given to “encourage cultural innovators who continually push boundaries and provide fresh interpretations of our world.”
Presentation of the award was made in Los Angeles and featured honorees from theater, dance, film, literature, architecture and music.
“We had a big schmooze in L.A. in December,” says Lynch, who will perform with her band Sunday at the ArtsCenter. “They treated us like royalty and we got to hang around a lot of other recipients. It was an amazing experience to be around that much greatness. And to be considered one of them.”
Planning side projects
Lynch, who recently signed a recording contract with Nashville-based Compass Records, plans to use the award to finance side projects not covered under her Compass deal.
“The money is intended to help fuel your creative effort,” she says. “They’re hoping you will do something you otherwise might not be able to finance. My plans are to do a couple of side projects. One of them is a Christmas project I’ve been wanting to do for years. And to put together a Christmas show that is a little more theatrical than just standing on stage singing Christmas songs.”
In the meantime, Lynch is putting the final touches on a new album, which should be released in the spring. One track is “Killing Time,” a song written by celebrated tunesmith Sarah Siskind. The song had been on hold for Bonnie Raitt, but when Raitt declined, Siskind turned the song over to Lynch.
The band Lynch brings with her to the ArtsCenter is arguably the finest ensemble of her career. It features award-winning bassist Mark Schatz, and multi-instrumentalists Matt Wingate and Bryan McDowell. McDowell, a Tar Heel native who joined last year, brings renewed energy to the band.
“Bryan … has created sort of a real energy in Matt’s playing.” Lynch says. “The two of them are a different generation than Mark and I. So we have two generations represented here. Two young guys with incredible chops who are old souls.
“They’re totally accepting of our generation. They raise the bar on the picking. Every generation does it. They’re just feeding on what was before them, I think. They bring an energy and – I don’t want to say a competitive edge – but there’s something about, ‘Here. Take that!’ and the other one gives it back. It keeps them both on their toes. And there’s no resting on laurels for those guys when they play.
“There’s respect, and we all really like each other. We all get along; no one argues. It’s just a really good working situation, and people can tell.”
Lynch began her career in the 1970s, as a member of the northern Alabama bluegrass band, Hickory Wind. Changing the name to Front Porch String Band, they released a self-titled album in 1981. The following year, Lynch retired from the band to devote her energies to raising her children. She continued to write songs, including “Hills of Alabam,” which appeared on Kathy Mattea’s 1989 album, “Willow in the Wind.”
Front Porch re-emerged in 1991 with the acclaimed CD, “Lines and Traces.” A solo gospel album, “Friends for a Lifetime,” followed in 1993, as Lynch branched out as a solo artist. Other albums include “New Day,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and the Grammy-nominated “Moonlighter.”
With her career established and her creativity affirmed by the USA Fellowship, Lynch is exploring ways to expand her artistry with different projects. The Christmas album and stage show are in the works. So is a swing album. For Lynch, exploring alternatives will stoke her creative fires, keep her band challenged and her fans on their toes.
“I don’t want people to stalemate on me,” she says.” Look at a lot of the players who have been around as long as me. Look at Bela (Fleck). He changes up his projects. Tim O’Brien does it.
“I think it keeps it interesting, and it keeps the band engaged. So I’m hoping to start to do that. I’m established now. I’ve carved out my place in the music world.”