The Upshot: America’s premiere bluegrass belle looks north to Canada for fresh material and the results are beyond stupefying. Her ability to reconstruct and own each composition, extending the reach of each original while adding to the impact of every song covered is pure magic. North By South signals an end to all borders, if not the beginning of something truly powerful.
BY ERIC THOM
It’s happened before. It took Britain’s post-war adoption and incorporation of traditional American blues into ‘invasion’ rock’n’roll to awaken American interests in its own homegrown treasures. Likewise, the reigning Queen of American Bluegrass, Claire Lynch, helps grow a greater appreciation of Canadian folk amongst Canadians – and all music fans, by covering a select group of Canadian singer-songwriters. Most of these are, for lack of a better term, folk musicians, ranging from the better-known (Gordon Lightfoot, Ron Sexsmith and Bruce Cockburn) to those most deserving of attention (Cris Cuddy, Old Man Luedecke and Lynn Miles). In-between, you’ll discover under-exposed giants like J.P. Cormier, Willie P. Bennett and David Francey. Yet this release has little to do with musical tourism. The fact that Lynch responded to a Canadian fan’s email request to come to Canada and, over time, ended up marrying him (to whom the lone original, “Milo” is dedicated) will only provide the backgrounder to why America’s three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year has turned her attention to music penned by Canadian artists. What’s truly remarkable is realized in Lynch’s ability to flawlessly inhabit each and every track with a voice that’s long been a natural wonder in its ability to completely transcend musical genres. Over her storied career, she’s effortlessly fused elements of folk to bluegrass to country and back. Joined by members of the Claire Lynch Band (Mark Schatz, Jarrod Walker, Bryan McDowell), Lynch adds prestigious guests including Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Kenny Malone, Alison Brown and David Grier to the mix.
Beginning with Sexsmith’s “Cold Hearted Wind”, Lynch rebirths it into an instant bluegrass classic, featuring graceful harmonies from Matt Wingate, McDowell’s mandolin and the piercing precision of Douglas’ dobro. Here – as throughout the album – Lynch’s frail, delicate flower of a voice has the ability to register its commanding presence. J. P. Cormier’s distinctive maritime ballad, “Molly May” is rebuilt in her name as McDowell’s fiddle and Walker’s mandolin join Jeff Taylor’s accordion to create one of the disc’s highlight tracks. Old Man Luedecke’s own “Kingdom Come” has its banjo part played by Fleck while fiddle, guitar and mandolin serve to pick up the song’s overall pace. This, again joined by Wingate’s harmonies, helps Lynch make the song all hers, rendered in a more upbeat, robust style. The much-revered Willie P. Bennett’s gorgeous “Andrew’s Waltz” is softened by a gentler vocal, dual fiddles and Walker’s mandolin delicately intertwined with David Grier’s acoustic guitar, underlining the original’s true waltz characteristics as its elegance earns a makeover. Jerry Douglas’ dobro drives David Francey’s “Empty Train” down the tracks as Walker’s mandolin and McDowell’s playful banjo tangle to create, with Douglas’ help, a slightly offbeat, jazzy tribute to the original. Cuddy’s “Gone Again” features Béla Fleck (banjo) and David Grier (guitar) as McDowell’s fiddle and Lynch’s lonesome vocal makes one wonder how this could ever have been anything but a beautiful bluegrass song. The always-there impact of Mark Shatz’s warm-toned bass, coupled with Kenny Malone’s inventive percussive techniques provide Lynch with a solid foundation to stand on as this rhythm section lends substantial depth to each song tackled. Cue the moody darkness of Lynn Miles “Black Flowers” – itself a masterpiece – as Lynch & Co. move the song into even darker territory, slowing things down to feature Lynch’s world-weary vocal, barely accented with sparse accompaniment (banjo, mandolin, fiddle). Like Miles, Lynch is a master of melancholy, adding just enough pain and disappointment to the recipe to keep it thoroughly human. The somewhat out-of-the-blue “Milo” is a Lynch-penned love song, pure and simple – the marriage of city to country, played with a big bounce and a bigger smile (that’s Mark Schatz’s mouth harp). You always hear the Gordon Lightfoot in a Gordon Lightfoot song, no matter what and Lynch’s addition of Jerry Douglas’ dobro keeps “It’s Worth Believin’” in full character, yet Lynch’s vocal – in duet with Bryan McDougall – tends to soften the impact of the original, which also benefits from the rich instrumentation of its remake. Bruce Cockburn’s already beautiful “All The Diamonds In The World” gains in its bluegrass transformation, its descriptive lyrics glistening amidst the cascading notes of guitar and mandolin, as Lynch and Wingate wrestle its hymn-like stature and bring it back to earth, extending its allure.
North By South succeeds on so many levels, not the least of which is in Claire Lynch’s ability to find and nurture the true song in every composition she finds, getting inside it and making it sound like it’s always been one of hers. That she’s found fresh inspiration north of the 49th Parallel, is the North’s gain. Here’s hoping the South will rise again.