Although she’s won some of the biggest bluegrass awards out there, Claire Lynch never has fancied herself strictly as a bluegrass artist. And that’s one reason why the Walnut Valley Festival — which kicks off Wednesday in Winfield — always has appealed to the Alabama-based singer, songwriter and band leader.
“Winfield to me was always kind of cutting-edge,” said Lynch, who first performed here in 1979. “They’re more folk and bluegrass, a collection of musicians and players that are really diverse. There are a lot more festivals that are widening their perception of what a bluegrass festival is. A lot of the ones that are more traditional I don’t play anymore very much because we don’t fit into that mold. I think Winfield always had the right idea to begin with.”
Campers have been arriving and holding their own jam sessions in Winfield since last week.
In addition to Lynch, other grandstand performers include the Irish band Teada with special guest Seamus Begley; the Steel Wheels, an Americana group known for their harmonies; and the Quebe Sisters Band, a trio of Texas sisters who’ve been honing their western swing sound since their pre-teens.
Lynch, who performs Friday and Saturday, grew up in Kingston, N.Y., between Albany and New York City. She discovered country music after her family moved to Huntsville, Ala., when she was 12. Her voice, described by Dolly Parton as one of the most beautiful in the business, is that of a life-long southerner now.
Lynch said she was “probably 19 or so” when she had “sort of an epiphany” about her singing.
“I think I thought that’s how I need to sound,” she said. “Before that, I was clueless.”
She first became known in the 1970s as the leader of the Front Porch String Band. The band quit the road in 1981, with Lynch stopping to raise a family and write songs recorded by the likes of Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea. Lynch resurrected the Front Porch Band in 1991 and won her first International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year award six years later.
Lynch took another break from the music business from 2000 to 2005, then formed the Claire Lynch Band, which led to her winning her second IBMA award, in 2010. She also found time to record harmony vocals with Parton (“Little Sparrow”), Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and others.
In a telephone interview from Huntsville, Lynch said she’s not exactly sure how many times she’s performed at Walnut Valley, but believes the last time was for the 25th anniversary festival.
“They had the bands that had been sort of a highlight through the years, so that was an honor,” she said.
“I remember being perfectly charmed by people like Bryan Bowers, who could stand on the main stage, one guy with an autoharp holding the whole grandstand,” she said.
After recording for Rounder Records for 18 years, Lynch recently signed with Compass Records Group.
“I just think it was time for sort of a fresh move, a new group of people to work with,” she said. “I had a fabulous run with Rounder Records.”
Lynch is rehearsing songs for a new CD that she plans to start recording in November. She plans to play several of the songs in Winfield, including “Dear Sister,” a song she co-wrote based on a trove of letters from a quartet of brothers who fought in the Civil War.
Lynch says she never sits down intending to write a bluegrass song.
“The problem is that it’s hard for me to write a bluegrass song,” she said. “Honestly, I try, and I keep trying, and sometimes I’m successful. I think a song needs to be what it is organically.”
But that doesn’t mean festivalgoers shouldn’t expect some of the blazing picking associated with bluegrass music when they see her band perform. On bass is Mark Schatz, two-time IBMA Bass Player of the Year. On guitar is Matthew Wingate, a past winner of Merlefest’s Doc Watson Guitar Championship. And on mandolin and fiddle is the newest member, 21-year-old Bryan McDowell, who will be familiar to many Walnut Valley regulars. In 2009, he won the festival’s flatpicking, mandolin and fiddle championships all on the same day, something that’s never been done before or since.
“Yeah, I’ve got a pretty good band,” Lynch said with a laugh.