Monday, July 1, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews: Claire Lynch - DEAR SISTER

Image635082596774984640The instant you hear Claire Lynch’s voice, you know it’s her. She has that most elusive of attributes…… RECOGNIZABILITY.

In my humble opinion, recognizability is the most important asset an artist needs. Think about it….. you know it’s Bill Monroe or Lester Flatt the instant you hear their voices, you know it’s Willie Nelson, sometimes even before you hear him sing, because his guitar, nicknamed “Trigger,“ is as identifiable as Willie’s voice is. That guitar’s SOUND informs your brain immediately! Be it love, or be it hate, an artist’s recognizability is the key to his/her success, or failure.

For the very few in the world who may not know Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister,” her latest release on Compass Records should solve any lingering problems of recognizability. (I swear I won’t use that word again!) The title track, written by Claire and Louisa Branscomb, is based on Civil War letters written by relatives of Louisa’s and discovered in an old trunk. When you really take the time to listen and absorb all the nuances of the words, and more importantly, how those words are used historically, the beauty and emotion of the song is extremely vivid and touching. Marvelous word play, the story line is paramount and the melody and chord structure are as memorable as the lyrics.

Claire clearly demonstrates the versatility of her voice on these lyrics. The depth she takes her characters sense of dread and loss to is the focal point that makes this song so poignant. What a wonderful song, and the arrangement, instrumentation and her vocal sincerity make it the most powerful song on this CD. If you’re as intrigued as I am by the story behind this song, the book is called: “DEAR SISTER: Civil War Letters To A Sister In Alabama,” by Frank Anderson Chappell, who is  a distant cousin of Louisa Branscomb.

Of the ten songs on this CD, five were either written or co-written by Claire. To me, her writing displays her most profound talent. The ability to reach deep inside and get those feelings and Image635082606172622154sensibilities on paper, for the whole world to see, shows inner strength and fearlessness. The only song she wrote alone is called “Patch Of Blue,” and I have to say that it’s simple, honest lyrics are so deeply personal that it can almost bring me to tears. To me, it’s a prayer of thanks for a “Patch Of Blue…..” for one’s self and the world. It’s my favorite. After listening to this song and “Dear Sister,” it’s so very easy to see why she was a 2012 winner of the prestigious “United States Artists Fellowship” and it’s $50,0000 grant. A very well deserved honor and prize for an outstanding musician.

The core band on this CD, and on the road with Claire, is made up of Mark Schatz on upright bass, Matt Wingate on guitar and mandolin and Bryan McDowell on fiddle, mandolin and guitar. At (then) eighteen years of age, Bryan pulled off a tri-fecta at the world championships in Winfield, Kansas (2009) by winning the fiddle, mandolin AND flat-pickin’ guitar championships. An awesome player to say the least, and he fits in perfectly with the other two members of Claire’s backup trio. There are lots of YouTube videos of this unit doing songs from this record, and they certainly have the stage presence to go along with their musicianship. I’d love to see them LIVE!

Another of her songs, “How Many Moons,“ written with Don Dunn, is the kick off song of this CD, and it will grab you right away. Great lyrics and the band is at it’s best with solid fiddle and guitar solos, plus Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar. The harmony vocals are right on the money and tight.

“Once The Teardrops Start To Fall,” written with Craig Fuller, is, in my generation’s colloquialism, “funky!” Drummer Larry Atamanuik and bass man Mark Schatz lay down a rhythm that would make all the hippie girls dance, and Bryan McDowell’s fiddle exchange with Rob Ickes’ reso guitar is hot, spicy and just plain fun to listen to. Again, the vocal harmonies are “right on.” This song would make a great choice for a singe release! Turn up the volume and enjoy it even more. You may even want to dance!

“Need Someone,” written with Irene Kelley, is the last of Claire’s original songs, and everyone of them is rife with expression, passion, sincerity and professionalism. She knows her craft, and this release wouldn’t have the Claire Lynch signature without them. The other five songs she has chosen are good ones, she knows how to “pick” them as well as she knows how to write them, but….. I’d still love to hear a CD with nothing but Claire Lynch songs.

If you’re a road musician, or just a free spirit, all the meanings of “Doin’ Time,” by Sarah Suskind and Big Al Anderson won’t be wasted on you. A rambling sort of person gives up a lot to be free, and this tune nails that fact down. Claire may as well have written this one, because she owns it! I love Kenny Malone’s percussion, and the solos in the middle are well arranged and super charged. Everything stops, and then Mark Schatz’s bowed bass, Matt Wingate’s mandolin solo along with Tim O’Brien’s bouzouki  and a key change bring on a ferocious fiddle solo that drives this song to it’s introspective end. Tim’s vocal harmony is also unmistakable.

The most fun song presented here is the old Bobby Osborne/Pete Gobel tune “I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow.” Bryan, the fiddle player kicks this one off with a vengeance and its off to the races! This one shows off everyone’s pickin’ abilities, including banjo virtuoso and Compass Records co-owner, Alison Brown. Bryan’s fiddle and Matt’s mandolin solos are HOT! Mark Schatz, on upright bass, shows off his best walking bass lines and some fine “dog-house,” bass that added musical personality to the whole tune. Gotta love a great bass man!

There are so many tunes on this CD that fall into that category of “listening songs.” The kind you would like to hear at the Bluebird CafĂ© in Nashville, where silence from the audience is golden, and mandatory! Or in a concert setting where the sound system is crisp, clean, warm and you can hear a pin drop on stage. “That Kind Of Love,” by Pierce Pettis, is the last one of those quiet and thoughtful gems on this recording. For some reason I would love to hear Claire do this one solo….. just her and that gorgeous Gallagher guitar she plays. Don’t get me wrong, this arrangement is marvelous, Mark T. Jordan’s Hammond B3 organ, a super mandolin solo and vocals that sound as big as a choir, really do the song justice. But, I would love to hear it very spare and intimate. Claire’s voice can be so delicate and whispery…. perfect for a living room concert.

Kenny Rogers said years ago that every record and every concert should include a “sing-along-song.” With “Everybody Knows I’ve Been Cryin’,” by Sarah Suskind, Claire has a doooozie! I guarantee you’ll be singing along to this one. It’s a ¾ time country waltz featuring first call Nashville steel man Mike Johnson on an instrument called a Pedabro. I called MY favorite steel and dobro player, Bleu Mortensen, to find out just what that is. As usual, Bleu knew all the facts about a Pedabro. It was patented and built by Paul Franklin’s Father (Paul being another first call Nashville steel player) and it’s a cross between a dobro and a steel guitar, AND it sounds great on this song. Trading out the solos with Mike is Matt Wingate throwing out the most down and dirty mandolin solo I’ve heard in a while. It’s a hoot! The whole song is a perfect up tempo counter balance to make this CD a multi-dimensional showcase for Claire’s talents.

This CD is a well thought out, planned and executed project, and Producer Garry West has to be praised for using every one’s talents to the fullest extent. It seems to me that fun, enthusiasm and imagination were the priorities, and the last song on the CD, “Buttermilk Road/The Arbours,” is a very wonderful way to end it. The song was written by Martha Scanlan, and Mark Schatz it given credit for the song/fiddle medley it turns into. It sounds like hands clapping, but it’s Mark doing “hambone” percussion along with Claire as she starts singing the song a cappella. After the first verse, a lone mandolin joins in and then a fiddle, percussion and the recorded dancing feet of Mark jump into the mix. A little technical wizardry is always helpful! After the song’s lyrics are finished, it stops and then turns into an even faster old time fiddle tune with Mark now playing claw hammer banjo. Martha’s original song is a good one, and then what the band turns it into is pure enjoyment. It perfectly caps a great CD!


I received a promo copy of this CD, with no liner notes, so I contacted Compass Records Press/Radio liaison Emily Amos (a most helpful young lady) for assistance. In the process of trading emails, she answered one of my questions by telling me that the CD had been recorded in Compass Records UPSTAIRS studio in Nashville. All of a sudden I went back in time about 35 years…… I had been in Nashville doing business with Chuck Glaser of Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, and had spent time with him in the UPSTAIRS studio at their offices. I remember being humbled standing in that most famous of studios where so many hit records had been recorded. Naw…… it couldn’t be the same building, that was way too long ago. Well, come to find out, Compass Records IS in the old Glaser Brothers building and that studio is still producing hit records! I can only imagine the “Energy” oooozing out of those walls and adding more pizzazz to what is being recorded in that room today. You can’t tell ME that studio doesn’t have some good JUJU (I stole that word from my friend Paula!) still touching, caressing and affecting the music made there! Maybe that’s why Claire’s newest record sounds so good. It’s possessed with the notes of country gold records past. I’ve already told you I love this record, so now we just have to sit back and see if the “fates, the Muses and good juju” push this recording toward the recognition it deserves. Yep….. this is a must have CD!

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