“When you go to a Carnival, you go into a sideshow tent, and on every stage you find a different person with a different story,” says Nora Jane Struthers. “That’s why I’m trying to do with this album – craft vignettes, and in some cases more developed narratives, about imaginary people’s lives.”
Struthers’ album Carnival, issued on the singer-songwriter’s own label on April 16, 2013, is an ambitious and literate follow-up to the Nashville performer’s much-praised 2010 debut.
Produced by Brent Truitt (Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks), who also helmed Struthers’ self-titled bow,Carnival comprises 14 fresh original compositions in her “Classic Americana” vein that richly show off her skills as a sensitive and intelligent tune-weaver and a warm and persuasive vocalist.
Recorded at Truitt’s East Nashville studio, the album marks the recording debut of Struthers’ touring band, the Party Line (which takes its handle from one of the record’s songs, about the early days of rural telephone calls.) Carnival caps three years of intense work by the 29 year old that included recognition of her group as best band at Colorado’s prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a stint as featured vocalist and songwriter in the Alaska-bred, Nashville-based band Bearfoot, and touring in the U.S., France and Germany.
The Party Line includes gifted instrumentalists Joe Overton (clawhammer banjo and harmony vocals), Drew Lawhorn (drums), Nick DiSebastian (upright bass and guitar), and Jack Devereux (fiddle). The album includes guests such as producer Truitt on mandolin as well as singers Rachael Hester and Nick Woods. Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line support the album with heavy touring in theaters, clubs and festivals, including the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
Struthers now re-emerges as a band-leader with a smart, affecting cycle of songs sporting a timeline that stretches from the antebellum 19th-century South to the middle of the last century. Reflecting her background in literature – she taught English before undertaking a full-time career in music in 2008 – the tunes are deftly-told stories that survey the American terrain from a uniquely focused point of view.
“I realized that I was writing a collection of story-songs from a female perspective,” Struthers says. “I was able to arrange them chronologically, as teenagers, then women, then old women. The album has a narrative, from girlhood to death.”
The instrumentation and form of Struthers’ music draws on her traditionalist roots – her father Alan is himself a bluegrass musician – but with the addition of drums, this record takes a bend toward more progressive roots-rock bands like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers.
“I’m really passionate about the stories in the old ballads and story-songs,” says Struthers. “I’m trying to bring that element of traditional music forward into a contemporary sonic space. I want story-songs to live on in a way that will be accessible to more people. That’s my artistic mission. When we hear another person’s story, we gain perspective and are changed; we’re able to see our own lives through new eyes.”
Virginia-born Struthers was educated at NYU’s Steinhart School of Education and taught at a charter school in Brooklyn, while cutting her musical teeth as a folk-rock performer in New York clubs like CBGBs and the Cutting Room. She decided to move into music full-time after attending such convocations as Virginia’s Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention and North Carolina’s Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention with her father.
She made her recording debut in Dirt Road Sweetheart, a duo with her father, which released the album I Heard the Bluebirds Sing in 2008. Not long thereafter, she piled her belongings into her 1998 Honda Odyssey and relocated from New York to Music City.
She recorded her 2010 solo debut Nora Jane Struthers with such Nashville masters as multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien and fiddler Stuart Duncan. The album was received with ecstatic reviews: Bluegrass Unlimited praised it as “a marvel that combines brilliant songcraft, a sultry yet honey-hued voice, and an inspired sense of personal musical style,” while Dave Higgs ofBluegrass Breakdown called it “one of the most mesmerizing, haunting and hard-hitting projects I’ve ever heard.”
Shortly after taking first place at Telluride in June 2010, Nora Jane teamed up with Bearfoot and released an album, American Story, on Nashville’s Compass Records. The album featured six songs either written or co-written (with Tim O’Brien and Claire Lynch) by Struthers; one of them, “Tell Me a Story,” became a top-rated video on CMT. While Struthers calls her time with the group “definitely a step up for me, and a very positive experience,” she recommitted in late 2012 to touring with her own band.
Her heightened profile as a touring performer with a popular video helped Struthers mount a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of Carnival. She says, “My goal was to raise $20,000 in 30 days, and I raised $22,000. It was all from touring and making new fans and meeting people.”
Nora Jane Struthers stepped forward with a distinctive sound and on-stage style – her personal collection of vintage dresses makes her one of the most visually striking of modern country artists. But the moving, perceptive, and witty songs on Carnival represent a new quantum leap, born of hard work and deep creative reflection.
“Over the past three years, as I’ve been touring and performing, I realized that primarily I’m a storyteller,” she says. “I’ve been working to hone my skills so I can do that better.” After listening to Carnival, no one will deny the keen edge of Struthers’ masterful new work.