Claire Lynch,
Dear Sister
(Compass, 2013)

The Roys,
Gypsy Runaway Train
(Rural Rhythm, 2013)

Check the southeast corner of the back cover of Claire Lynch's Dear Sister (incidentally, her Compass debut after earlier releases on Rounder). There, you are -- or somebody is -- directed to "File under: Bluegrass." Don't believe it. This is not a bluegrass album, even of the modernist variety.

Lynch's band lacks a Scruggs-style banjo picker. The single cut that features one, revived from an old Osborne Brothers number, employs the guest services of Compass owner and banjo master Alison Brown. The banjo played by band member Mark Schatz on the concluding "Buttermilk Road/The Arbours," sure to remind Lynch-literate listeners that she once performed old-time music, is in the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style.

The approach Sister takes is hardly unique to it or to Lynch, but it has no formal name. "Acoustic country-pop" is at this stage a description, not a genre designation. Still, there's enough of it around that it'll get there. In more commercial Nashville studio arrangements, songs with titles as generic as "Need Someone," "That Kind of Love" and "Everybody Knows I've Been Crying" would be the business of any working day. To the extent that these songs sustain interest, it's from the thoughtful arrangements, the band's expert picking and Lynch's crystalline singing.

The Roys, a Canadian-born brother-and-sister act, are definitely bluegrass, if of a 21st -century, crossover kind. These days Elaine and Lee Roy (yes, Lee Roy) seem ubiquitous on my television screen and in my email in-box. The first thing one notices is that they're physically attractive, when ordinarily bluegrass, like politics, is notoriously show business for -- let us be charitable in our selection of adjective -- nondescript people. On top of that, to me they appeared to come across as the late John Denver used to: wholesome, borderline adorable, and manufactured. As if to underscore the point, Lee's most prominent feature is, as Denver's was in his commercial prime, cute, pageboy-ish long hair.

Well, on the occasion of Gypsy Runaway Train, I declare surrender. This isn't Bill Monroe's bluegrass, of course, or even Blue Highway's, but for what it is, which is bluegrass in a generally softer focus, it's good enough. Veteran fiddler/mandolinist Andy Leftwich, currently with Ricky Skaggs's Kentucky Thunder, produces with the assured touch you'd expect. The 13 cuts are divided between originals and covers. The former aren't bad, albeit at times a tad too-too in their earnestness. On finally giving the Roys real attention, however, I am struck by how much I enjoy Elaine Roy's vocals. Her reading of the Johnny Bond chestnut "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight," for example, is surprisingly intense and moving.

If I'm not crazy about everything here, I also hear nothing actively dislikable, and the strongest songs and performances are pretty satisfying. I don't know who's changed -- the Roys or I -- but now, in any case, I understand what others see in them: real musicianship behind the pretty package.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 August 2013

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