I teach seniors beginner guitar classes at a local active living centre supported by the city where I live. The students, bless them, are coming at something new at a point in their lives when many of their peers wouldn’t dream of putting themselves out there in the same way. It’s difficult and frustrating, but I like to remind them that learning an instrument isn’t about performance, at least not principally. First, it should be about exploring a new artistic geography. If you’ve ever tried to play a G-run, you know the satisfaction of pulling it off. But you also can appreciate like never before the people who do it well and employ it well in the service of a song. Learning an instrument brings more enjoyment, I think, to what we hear than what we play. That’s a minor example of a big idea: the more we know about something, the better we can appreciate the mastery of those who do it well.
That’s true in spades in the case of Claire Lynch and the musicians she’s brought together on this new release, Dear Sister. Claire Lynch is a storied vocalist, arranger, and bandleader. But if you need another reason to buy this album—and no doubt you don’t, but there you go—Mark Schatz is a unqualified delight. Lynch, rightly, lets all of his talents show on this recording, including his skills as a bass player, a banjo player, a “hambone” or body percussionist, and a traditional Appalachian dancer, the last two of those on “Buttermilk Road/The Arbours.” It’s true in this day and age the live shows support the recording, but this material is so wonderful and varied that it’s easy to feel that, without seeing them, we’re missing something.
Also here is Bryan McDowell, who at 18 won first place in all the major competitions at Winfield, Kansas in 2009. No one had done that before, though Mark O’Connor won two in the same year. He’s still just 22, but some of the guitar work here is a master class in how to add voice, interest, and variety to a bluegrass guitar part. Exhibit A is the first track on the disc, “How Many Moons.” Gorgeous guitar work, but it’s not in the service of flash, it’s in the service of the song. You can take a bath in the fiddle work.
From there Lynch takes us on a journey. There’s heartbreak, doubt, and love. The selection of songs is rich and varied, from the Peirce Pettis ballad “That Kind of Love” to an energetic romp through the Osborne Brothers’ “I’ll be Alright Tomorrow.”
There is just an inspiring quality to the recordings on this album, all of which are pure, honest, and without a whiff of pretension. And the more you know about what they are doing, the better you can appreciate what it is that they do so well.