In Alaskan Anna Lynch's debut album, intricate songs about everyday lives

Daily News correspondentDecember 25, 2013 

Songwriter Anna Lynch with bass player Garren Volper and Peter Hamre (vocals, mandolin)

COURTESY ANNA LYNCH

Anna Lynch, who released her first bluegrass album in October, was on her way back from a gig in Homer when she called. She was piled into a Subaru along with three other people, two guitars, a stand-up bass, a mandolin, a fiddle, some clothes and a bottle of peppermint schnapps. This is, quite literally, how these musicians roll.

Eric Rodgers, of the band High Lonesome Sound, was driving. Rodgers says he can't get Lynch's music out of his head. "You know it's good," he says, "when your backup band listens to it for fun, not just because they need to learn the songs."

Lynch says she never wanted to play folk music, perhaps because she grew up surrounded by it: Her dad is a former high school teacher who plays Irish music, and her mom is a nurse who sings and recently took up the bagpipes. Her little brother "gets all the ladies" with his masterful accordion playing.

So maybe now that she's released her first full-length album, she's succumbed to the inevitable. But, she insists, "stringed instruments hated me until I was 18."

When Lynch attended the Alaska Folk Arts Music Camp as a teenager -- her mother talked her into going with her cousins -- she found herself surrounded by young people who loved music for the first time, including both of her future bandmates. It was also where Mike Mickelson (rhythm and lead guitar) of Bearfoot Bluegrass bid her adieu with something to the tune of, "great singing, but for the love of God, learn to play an instrument."

Eventually she learned to play the guitar, and that skill, along with her smooth voice and songwriting prowess, comes through loud and clear on her self-titled album -- it's catchy and pleasant at its worst; unique, versatile, and engaging at its best.

Bluegrass songs are often about everyday life, and Lynch's are no exception; she has created what is essentially a collection of short stories with fully developed characters, emotions and scenes. While her songs aren't overtly Alaska-themed, Alaska represents an easy parallel to the hardscrabble, rural living in Appalachia where bluegrass originated.

"Railroad Man," for example, is a song about a young man who strikes out on his own, takes a chance and chooses something different for his life. "Dreams come here," she sings, "but they never go back." It's a story that could easily be about someone going to work on the trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s, or spending half the year on a drilling rig or a fishing boat -- walking the line between adventure and danger, profit and risk, and balancing a feeling of independence with missing the loved ones left behind. "Once you're on the railroad, making dimes is all you do."

Lynch herself took a chance moving to Alaska from California and it's starting to pay off. She won the 2012 Alaska Bluegrass Song of the Year for "Olivia" and a 2013 Rasmussen Foundation Individual Artist award that helped her produce a high-quality debut album that's worth more than one listen.

Although they call themselves the Anna Lynch Band, she's quick to bring bandmates Garren Volper (bass) and Peter Hamre (vocals, mandolin) into her limelight. "I'm sort of the boss but I'm not really," she says. "I write the songs, but they make them sound pretty. They're both the most talented musicians I know."

In "Not a Love Song," from the very first delicate harmony of "I'll never write a love song for you," it's evident that the song will eventually be written, but Lynch builds suspense; she spends more time singing about why it shouldn't be written than why it should be. The picking in the background moves the song forward without being obtrusive, and the melody lingers long after the song has ended.

Another good example of her songwriting can be found in "Gone and Back." Lynch sings about an enigmatic man who leaves behind a trail of grieving girls, who has "kindness hidden in his hands, but he's got no love to spare."

"He's kind of man you'll never understand but it's hard to know it now," she sings. "He's a little up on the wind, Mr. Gone and Back again. It just takes a little of him to make you want to want him. But he'll always be gone in the morning."

The only song on the album that Lynch didn't write herself is "Pretty Saro," which she first heard in the movie "Songcatcher." "Pretty Saro" is Lynch's nod to tradition. It's a tune that dates back to the 1700s, which she reworked with fiddle player Amanda Kerr. "That song on the album is hers," Lynch explained. "It's kind of evolved. There are so many different versions. We took our favorite verses from the different ones. We changed the timing. It was a very fun process."

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