Nov. 01--Claire Lynch, this year's International Bluegrass Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year, remembers the day she fell in love with bluegrass and the day she decided to forsake the music. The latter memory is bittersweet.
But the two-time Grammy nominee's resurgence after a six-year hiatus, the two additional IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards and her newest honor, a United States Artist Fellowship grant, have helped make that hiatus more sweet than bitter.
She'd been out of high school for about a year and a half when she first heard the sound that would shape the rest of her life.
The teen from Huntsville had run into high school friends who were opening for a nationally touring bluegrass band, The McLain Family.
"That's when I discovered bluegrass -- that very day," she said during a telephone interview. "It was sort of an altering experience for me because I had never experienced bluegrass music live, and these people were all acoustic and all full of positive energy."
It wasn't long before she'd joined the band.
"I had been writing songs and playing guitar since I was in my teens, but I'd never thought of doing it professionally," she said. "We were just around a campfire one night at a fiddler's convention in Tennessee and some of the guys were pickin' and I started singing, and they said, 'wow, we didn't know you could sing.'
"They asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I did, and I never looked back."
She wound up marrying singer, mandolin-player Larry Lynch with whom she'd gone to high school.
"I was about 19 when I was in Hickory Wind (the band that became the Front Porch String Band after it discovered another band of the same name already had a national record deal)," she said. "We became the house band at Oak Street Banjo Parlor in Birmingham, which was on Morris Avenue and sort of a hot night spot for Birmingham in those days."
The group released an album in 1981, then disbanded. She may have given up the band, but not the music. For years she worked as a songwriter writing for some of country's biggest stars. When she and her husband put the Front Porch String Band back together in 1991, the group's "Hills of Alabam" became a hit. Soon, she started the Claire Lynch Band, releasing her first solo album in 1993.
Her two albums after that earned Grammy nominations. Then in 1999, she walked away.
"I was trying to save my marriage," said Lynch, one of the first musicians inducted into the Alabama Bluegrass Music Association's hall of fame. "It didn't work. In 1999, I thought that if I gave music up it would help, but apparently it did not."
Still, while she no longer toured or recorded with the Claire Lynch Band, she did record with top female vocalists, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. But it wasn't enough.
Her marriage having failed, it was hard to ignore the siren's call of the music she loved.
"I missed it so badly," she said. "I thought this is what I know, what I've done for so long, I might as well just jump back in and get 'er done.
"I came back full time in 2005, and I haven't stopped since."
At first the years she lost were painful, but she now says she is better for them.
"The time off absolutely was beneficial, partially because all those little cliches you here are true: absence really does make the heart grow fonder and you don't know what you've got til it's gone," she said. "So I came back with a whole new appreciation for it. Having thought it through, there were a couple really beneficial things about it."
She said it gave her voice a rest that she hopes will prolong her career, and it gave her perspective.
"When I came back and opened up my song catalog I realized that I had written my life, and I really hadn't known that while I was writing it. There was expression of everything that was going on in my life in my songs, but I really didn't realize that until I stood back and looked at it."
She said it's made the music even more personal for her.
Since she came back eight years ago, her career has continued with new albums and new honors.
Her new album "Dear Sister," released May 28 on Compass Records, already has been nominated for IBMA's 2013 Album of the Year.
The title cut comes from a song on the CD that she co-wrote with Louisa Branscomb, who also has roots in Alabama. Branscomb's great, great, great aunt had four brothers who fought in the war and wrote letters to their sister. More than a century later, Branscomb's family was about to sell the home in Union Springs when they found the trunk containing the letters.
At the time, Branscomb was living near Murfreesboro, Tenn., near where the Battle of Stones River was fought -- a battle where almost 25,000 soldiers died and where they believe one of the brothers fought.
"We wrote the song based on some research, but a lot of it we made up," Lynch said.
The song imagines what the brother might have felt before the fighting began, and chronicles one of the interesting things that occurred before the battle -- the two sides singing battle hymns at each other until both sides came together to sing the song "Home Sweet Home."
While others laud her songwriting, the humble singer says she can't tell if her songwriting has improved. But she says she knows her bands have. She says her current band members (Mark Schatz -- bass; Matt Wingate -- guitar, mandolin; and Bryan McDowell -- fiddle, mandolin) are some of the top artists in their field.
The same could be said of Lynch, except she's not just one of the top artists in her field, but one of the top artists in any field.
She recently received the United States Artist Fellowship, which awards $50,000 fellowships to artists in eight genres, including literature, architecture, theater, visual arts and dance. The group nominates 300 artists from throughout the country and then chooses 50 to receive the grant based on artistry and creativity.
Of the 50 who received the grant this year, only seven were musicians. Lynch was one of only three bluegrass/county musicians to receive the award since the fellowships began in 2005. While Lynch can play vintage bluegrass with the best, the creativity comes not only from her songwriting, but also her ability to mix everything from swing to Celtic music into her bluegrass sound.
"The musicians they had been giving the fellowships to were mainly classical and jazz musicians," she said. "It's a great, great honor. ... This is a group of people who realize there are artists, although deserving, who are not making even the money they need to perpetuate their craft, which is absolutely the case with so many artists that I know. It was amazing, and something I really needed."
"I'm really lucky I was able to associate myself with the genre. I think I found a good home. I've always been someone who didn't want to be just like everyone else, so I decided that I wanted to create something that was based in bluegrass but was also more of a statement of my own creativity. Part of it may have been just being at the right place at the right time, but I think people also appreciate fresh ideas."
Want to go
? What: The Claire Lynch Band
? When: 3 p.m. Sunday; doors open at 2:30 p.m.
? Where: The Capri Theatre, 1045 E. Fairview Ave.
? Admission: Tickets are $10 per person in advance (sold at the theater and Capitol Book & News), or $15 the day of the show
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