“If you love somebody enough / You follow wherever they go…” – so begins Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis”, a song recorded by Bobby Bare, Scott Walker, Solomon Burke, and Joe Pernice, among others. The song’s introduction finds itself echoed in Jesse Winchester’s “That’s What Makes You Strong”, initially recorded on his 1999 album Gentleman of Leisure and featured on Claire Lynch’s new album, Whatcha Gonna Do, as a duet between Lynch and the songwriter. “If you love somebody / Then that means you need somebody” are the opening lines, but it is more than just this partial repetition that links the song to Hall’s. Both songs are about choice and consequence, concepts that are central to Lynch’s recording project. “How you gonna handle your moment of truth?”, asks the singer on the title track.
Issues of similarity and comparison seem often to be at the heart of discussions about Claire Lynch. She has been described as a perfect mix of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton, and there is certainly something to this. She moves constantly between the worlds of pop, country, and bluegrass, and has done so for much of her career, which began in the 1970s with the band Hickory Wind, later known as the Front Porch String Band. She shares this ability to move between worlds with her Rounder labelmate Alison Krauss, who remains another unavoidable point of reference. Such flexibility has sometimes brought anger from the more purist elements of the bluegrass world, who see crossover work as an abandonment of tradition. Like many other “world” or “roots” musics, bluegrass has had to face endless debates about conservation and innovation, many of which conveniently forget that these are “invented traditions”. Such debates, however, are rarely entirely irrelevant for they map out the elements of the music that mark some form of distinction (what makes this or that music “bluegrass”?) and the ground on which evaluative judgments can be made.
So while it may not always be certain whether we can describe Whatcha Gonna Do as bluegrass, we can still take it for what it is, a collection of high-quality songs performed by a band clearly versed in a range of musical styles. The first sound we hear is Mark Schatz’s bass, an excellent introduction to the mainly acoustic elements that create the Claire Lynch Band’s soundworld. As Lynch sings the opening verse of Dana Cooper’s “Great Day In The Mornin'”, she issues the instruction “turn it up”, to which fiddler Jason Thomas adds an immediate response. Clichéd it may be, but it’s an effective announcement of the live sound the band has attempted to capture on the album. That liveness serves to instill an element of grit and consequence to even the most pop-like material on offer, evident on tracks such as “Highway” and “The Mockingbird’s Voice”. It also provides a connection to the world of Western swing, a style the musicians are all proficient in, as shown on the instrumental section of “Face to Face” and throughout “Crazy Train”.
While Lynch has written or co-written four of the 12 songs on offer, the strongest tracks are her versions of others’ material. Amongst these are the Garth Brooks-penned “A Canary’s Song” (previously recorded by the Smith Sisters) and the aforementioned collaboration with Winchester, who has been busy this year, cropping up on Devon Sproule’s Don’t Hurry For Heaven! and releasing his own album Love Filling station (on which Lynch guests).
Best of the bunch is a version of Susan Werner’s “Barbed Wire Boys”. Like Werner, Lynch is a versatile artist who likes to defy boundaries. Here, though, she plays it straight, a sensible choice given the sheer strength of the songwriting. A hymn to men who were “sober as coffee in a Styrofoam cup”, “Barbed Wire Boys” alternates its steady pace and gradual buildup of imagery and instrumentation with a melody that is keening at just the right emotional points, providing space for the singer’s voice to echo the Midwestern expanses described in the verses. But, for all the openness, this is a song about imprisonment, repression, and the fencing-in of feelings, its emotive peaks describing the unrealized dreams, unsaid words, and unsung songs of mute heroes betrayed only by “a catch in the voice”. Werner has set those feelings free, and Lynch and her band given them a new lease of life.
The closest Lynch comes to the bluegrass template is a version of Bill Monroe’s “My Florida Sunshine”, a sterling take that serves as a reminder of Lynch’s roots, the routes she has subsequently taken, and the choices she has made. The track is followed by the almost traditional-sounding “Widow’s Weeds” (written by Lynch and Jennifer Kimball), which attains an Appalachian severity that reminds us of Ralph Stanley’s insistence on descriptive terms other than “bluegrass” for mountain-style singing. Album closer “Woods of Sipsey”, meanwhile, sounds uncannily like “Stairway To Heaven”, though it remains closer to Dolly Parton’s version than Led Zeppelin’s. Given Alison Krauss’s recent collaboration with Robert Plant, such a web of connections is intriguing and serves to highlight the often arbitrary divisions drawn up between musical genres.
If initial reaction to Lynch’s album involves some battling over how apt it is to describe her as a bluegrass artist, along with reservations about the originality of some of the melodies on offer, such doubts are fairly easily dispelled with repeated listening. Indeed, following a few plays, Whatcha Gonna Do can be seen to stand as a worthy addition to this fine band’s repertoire.