Claire Lynch explores new territory with a revamped band and freshly minted album 

Sister Songs

Sister Songs

When Alison Krauss broke out of the bluegrass ghetto in 1995 with Now That I've Found You: A Collection, an album that sold two million copies, produced a No. 3 country single and won two Grammys and four Country Music Association Awards, record companies were scrambling to come up with another Krauss. None of their nominees duplicated Krauss' commercial success, and only two came close to her miraculous blending of Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens. Those two were Lynn Morris and Claire Lynch — and Morris' career was derailed by a 2003 stroke. Lynch carries on, however, now touring behind her first solo album in four years, last year's Dear Sister, and introducing a completely revamped band.

Like Krauss, Lynch spent much of the '90s and Aughts leading one of the world's best string bands. Over the course of four albums between 1997 and 2006, that band featured bassist Missy Raines, guitarist Jim Hurst and a variety of mandolinists. A good single-disc sampling from those years is the Rounder Records compilation Crowd Favorites. Raines provided a powerhouse bottom — as melodic as it was muscular — and Hurst supplied sparkling, single-note leads that seemed to extend the musical and emotional hints suggested by Lynch's rich alto.

Raines and Hurst were so good, in fact, that they were destined to be bandleaders themselves. Raines left after 2006's New Day to pursue a solo career, and Hurst did the same after 2009's Whatcha Gonna Do. Raines' 2013 album for Compass, New Frontier, tilts the balance in her music from bluegrass toward singer-songwriter folk. Raines co-wrote one song, but she seems more interested in interpreting the songs of obscure but gifted contemporary songwriters, much as Harris, Krauss and Lynch did before her. The weariness and hard-won calm in Raines' alto lends a gravity to the songs, and on the title track — written by The Farewell Drifters' Zach Bevill — she anchors the feeling of starting a new job or a new relationship in the tentative optimism of her voice and the implacable determination of her bass line.

Compass has also released Lynch's first post-Raines-and-Hurst album, Dear Sister, an all-acoustic affair that tilts more in the bluegrass direction. Lynch wrote one song by herself and co-wrote four more, including the impressive title track. That one, written with Louisa Branscomb, takes the form of a letter home from a Confederate infantryman on the night before the Civil War's Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro. The sobering nature of impending possible death is reinforced by the thick harmonies of Mark Schatz's bowed bass and Bryan McDowell's fiddle. That is followed immediately by Bobby Osborne's "I'll Be Alright Tomorrow," a hard-swinging drinking song lit up by Matt Wingate's mandolin solo.

That happens again and again on the album. Slow and sad or fast and frisky, the story is sold by Lynch's vulnerable soprano, which often sounds like it's on the verge of falling apart from heartache or giddiness — but it never quite does. Then the story acquires added depth from her terrific musicians, for the singer has once again assembled one of the world's best string bands.

Schatz came to Lynch from the recently disbanded Nickel Creek after first making his name in the Tony Rice Unit. Wingate won the Merlefest guitar championship at age 15 in 1997 and has toured with The Greencards, and since 2010 with Lynch. In 2009, an 18-year-old McDowell won an unprecedented triple crown: first place in the acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin categories at the international competition at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan. By 2011 he too had joined Lynch's band.

Years of roadwork have turned this group into more than a singer and three hotshot soloists. It sounds like a real band with the instrumental parts taking their cues from the vocal and vice versa. The tongue-in-cheek humor of "Once the Teardrops Start to Fall," for example, is established by Schatz's swaggering bass line and Wingate's descending guitar figure before Lynch comes along to mock her own heartbreak. On the other hand, the immense longing of "Need Someone" is articulated by Lynch's sighing soprano and then amplified by wistful arpeggios from Wingate's guitar and McDowell's mandolin.


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