Fair Claire and Talent to Spare

I might not be “Living In Raleigh Now” as the Chatham County Line anthem says, but I sure feel at home here in the capital of NC, just a few miles from my home town and amid the biggest bluegrass swirl of the year. World of Bluegrass is coming off beautifully with hundreds of shows, emerging bands and frequent sightings of the icons who made us fall in love with this music. It was especially thrilling to see Music City Roots alums Sierra Hull and Becky Buller shatter the grass ceiling to become the first women to win instrumentalist of the year prizes on mandolin and fiddle respectively. The event concluded with its vast street fair and two days of luxurious lineups in Red Hat Amphitheater.

So how could it be more appropriate that our first show following the World of Bluegrass would feature the spectacular Claire Lynch? She’s a three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, which is cool enough, but I love more that Dolly Parton and Mary Chapin Carpenter (among others) call her one of the best singers in the world. She was a female pioneer in the music, touring as early as the 1970s. Her years raising a family kept her off the road for a spell, but her songwriting developed and she heard her work recorded by numerous bluegrass notables. When she returned to the stage in 1991 as leader of the Front Porch String Band, her reputation as a performer truly grew. She earned Grammy Award nominations and her first IBMA awards. And then after another performing hiatus she formed the Claire Lynch Band and has been a distinct and important voice on the circuit ever since. Another validation of that truth took the form of a USA Walker Fellowship Award in 2012, a $50,000 prize reserved for substantial contributions to American culture.

Claire arrives at MCR this week with a delectable new album of easy grass and neo-acoustic arrangements called North By South. Inspired in part by her marriage to a Canadian fellow, Lynch set aside her own songs for great tunes by extremely North Americans. The press material lays it out: “She delivers stand out versions of Ron Sexsmith’s “Cold Hearted Wind” with Jerry Douglas on Dobro, the catchy “Kingdom Come” written by Old Man Luedecke featuring Bela Fleck and Stuart Duncan and the gorgeous maritime ballad “Molly May” written by Cape Breton’s J.P. Cormier. Lynch also offers thoughtful reinterpretations of songs by Lynn Miles, Dave Francey and Gordon Lightfoot.” Sounds good, eh?

Otherwise on our stage this week we’ll hear from sophisticated folk singer Rebecca Pronksy who returns to Roots after quite a long spell. She’s one of those artists that doesn’t come up in my personal listening cycles but every time I’m urged to check her music out I ask myself why she hasn’t been. Her records are lush and musically glowing with striking songs and a gorgeous voice. The critics adore the Brooklyn native and her music. Maverick magazine and other publications threw many stars at her atmospheric new Known Objects album. In a more general review, the Pittsburgh City Paper said that “Pronsky knows her way around a metaphor, and though residing in Brooklyn, she sings like she has Nashville in her blood … She stands out above the sea of thoughtful women with guitars.”

Speaking of thoughtful, I’ve long admired the Texas duo of Noel McKay and Brennan Leigh. They’re sparkling and smart – favorites of the late great Guy Clark. I heard a friend raving about them and their album Before The World Was Made, and indeed it’s a modern day country classic. Not only do the artists swing and harmonize sweetly, they write crackerjack songs with twists of phrase that are both artful, wise and down-home. So how happy I was to learn that High Plains Jamboree is Noel and Brennan’s four-piece with fiddler Beth Chrisman of the Carper Family and bass/banjo player Simon Flory, a teacher at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. This quartet makes some of the most refreshing acoustic roots music you could track down, because it matches a timeless musical touch with really absorbing songwriting. They bring unexpected insights to the old subjects and they comment on modern culture and digital overload with wit and awareness.

Rounding out the night will be the Dead 27s, a soul-rock and jam band from Charleston, SC. I haven’t heard these guys but their debut LP Ghosts Are Calling Out was produced by a member of my beloved Galactic and all other signs point to general coolness. JamSphere wrote the following: “Anyone who claims that rock and soul ain’t what it used to be clearly hasn’t heard of these stunning musicians. This will remind you of soul and blues from the late 60’s – with rock from the early 70’s. But probably the most compelling quality of the Dead 27s is how seamlessly they stay true to the pure, old school rock and soul sounds while making their music cutting edge relevant to today’s listeners.”

I note that both the Dead 27s and Rebecca Pronsky have interstellar illustrations on their album covers, so this evening appears set for seeing stars in all the meanings of the word. Hope you’ll join us.

Craig H.

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