With nearly two dozen performers working across three days and six stages, the Lowell Folk Festival is certainly about music. But the “folk” designation really signifies the cultural traditions at the heart of the event, now in its 25th year. Listening to artists like Michael Winograd & The Klezmer Orchestra International, the Cajun band Feufollet, the bluesy Magic Slim & The Teardrops, Irish ambassadors Lúnasa and Colombian cumbia group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, it becomes clear that the Lowell Folk Festival is truly a world music festival.
Best of all, it’s free — the largest such gathering in the country.
Claire Lynch first came to Lowell Folk in its early days — “Back in the 1900s,” she says with a laugh from her home in Tennessee. “I had a mullet — I remember there was a picture in the Boston Globe.”
At the time, she led the Front Porch Band. The Alabama-based group began in the 1970s, a time when female-fronted bluegrass bands were uncommon. Caught up in what was then known as the ecology movement, Lynch was drawn to the music’s unadorned nature.
“You don’t need an amp, you don’t plug in and I just thought that was so cool, so organic,” she says. “You can stand in the middle of the woods and have a full band sound. I really liked it, and I felt if I was going to jump into music, this music would not shame my parents.”
Lynch spent many years as in-demand backup singer, appearing on seminal albums by Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and many other stars. A songwriter, she contributed tracks to many other records as well.
Her cachet was undeniable.
“I still remember meeting Claire one year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival,” recalls Mary Chapin Carpenter in a quote posted on Lynch’s website. “I could hardly speak, I was so excited to finally meet one of my very favorite singers in all of acoustic, country and bluegrass music. She is a jewel.”
But in 2000, Lynch set down her guitar and pen. “I just walked away completely and became a normal citizen — church and kids,” she says. “I was trying to save my marriage — I thought it would help, but it didn’t help at all.”
It was a painful time, but when her children were grown Lynch again turned to music.
“I started feeling my own life again, and I realized the creativeness of what I want to do,” she says. “Then opportunities came my way and boom, I’m back on the road and I’ve got a band.”
She signed a multi-album deal with Rounder Records; her latest, 2009’s Whatcha Gonna Do, is a gem. High points include a duet with Jesse Winchester on his song “That’s What Makes You Strong,” and “Canary’s Song,” an unreleased Garth Brooks track. “He co-wrote that with Buddy Mondlock,” Lynch explains when asked how she managed to land the Brooks song about coal mining in West Virginia. “I was thrilled and surprised … I don’t know why he didn’t record it; maybe it was just too earthy for him.”
Lynch is currently assembling material for a new studio album that she plans to record in the fall. One song sure to be included is the Civil War ballad “Dear Sister.” Co-written with Louise Branscomb, the song describes a Christmas Eve truce at the Battle of Stones River. It was inspired by a collection of letters written to Branscomb’s great aunt and found a century and a half later, hermetically sealed in a family attic.
In addition to her own band, Lynch continues to work with other artists. She sang on Maine folksinger Jonathan Edwards’ latest record, returned Winchester’s favor with an appearance on his Love’s Filling Station CD, and contributed to Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins’ solo debut.
She finds encouragement from younger roots musicians like Watkins.
“The future looks really bright,” says Lynch, noting that the new breed of players “have the same sort of philosophy as what I’ve had — you can take these acoustic instruments and maintain their integrity and purity and play any kind of music you want on them. They have a lot more ability than just to play bluegrass music.”
Lynch then circles around to the spirit that fuels the Lowell Folk Festival, talking about her experience when a recent show in Montana was halted by an electrical storm. Jamming backstage with her banjo and fiddle player while they waited it out, they soon had company.
“There was a band from the Dominican Republic who also got rained out, and two of the percussionists came over and started playing,” she recalls. “Latin rhythms with old-time music and it was just lovely. If we’d had amps and electric guitars and basses, we wouldn’t have been able to pull off that magic moment … there’s sort of a community feeling among us because we were able to come together with music on the spot.”