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Belle of bluegrass at Randy Wood's
Claire Lynch and band in Savannah Saturday
Claire Lynch
Claire Lynch fell in love with blue grass when she was 19 and has since become the belle of the genre. - photo by Photo provided.

So the question is this: How does a girl from decidedly non-rural Kingston, NY discover bluegrass, fall in love with it, and grow up to become one of the most beloved women in the genre?

Claire Lynch was 12 when her family moved to Hunstville, Alabama. She was a diehard folkie fan, with a trunk full of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell albums — but she also had some Hendrix, and a couple of Three Dog Nights in there.

At 19, she heard the McLain Family Band.

"They were doing a sidewalk teaser, outside the festival where they were playing on the University of Alabama campus in Hunstville," Lynch remembers. "It's gripping when you hear a live bluegrass band for the first time. They had great big smiles and lots of show-biz energy."

She had very little knowledge of bluegrass at the time.

"I just stopped in my tracks and sat down on the ground," she laughs. "And dropped my jaw and went 'What!?' Naturally, I went in to hear them play, and the opening band was a couple of guys that I'd gone to high school with."

And so the torch was lit.

The Claire Lynch Band returns to Randy Wood Guitars in Bloomingdale for a concert Saturday, July 27. She has twice been named Female Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Dolly Parton, with whom she has both recorded and toured, says Lynch has "one of the sweetest, purest and best lead voices in the music business today."

Back in Alabama, although she sang in a church-harmony trio with her sisters, she was unsure of how to move into bluegrass.

Her friends, whose band was called Hickory Wind, made the decision for her. "I didn't even consider playing in the band until one night we were sitting around the campfire, and I started singing," Lynch recalls. "They went 'Wow, we didn't know you could sing.'"

She joined the band, which changed its name to the Front Porch String Band, and split a "$600 a week paycheck between five people."

Things got better: In the '90s, the band's Moonlighter and Silver and Gold received Grammy nominations.

Lynch formed her own band in 2005, and much of the material comes from her own prolific pen: Patty Loveless, The Seldom Scene, Cherryholmes, Kathy Mattea and others have recorded Lynch's tunes.

The current Claire Lynch Band includes two-time IBMA-winning clawhammer banjo player and bassman Mark Schatz, mandolinist/guitarist Matt Wingate and 22-year-old all-purpose stringman Bryan McDowell.

There's an art, Lynch knows now, to choosing the exactly-right musicians to accompany you.

Now that she's a seasoned pro, with a righteous reputation, she auditions her players. And she knows precisely what she wants.

"I sit 'em down in the living room, and we pick," Lynch explains. "I give them songs ahead of time, mp3 files, and I say 'Learn this, and learn this harmony part,' and then we sit down.

"There's been some really good singers in my band, but when their voice blended with mine, there was no magic. Because of the tone of their voice. It just didn't blend with mine.

"I like a player who's got some sort of heart coming out of their playing. Some sort of exceptional emotions that you can feel when they play."

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