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I am living in a dream when I wake.
You are my bright shining star you guide the way . . .
Wake. The evocative one-word title speaks volumes about what's happening on Nora Jane Struthers' latest album. For the thirty-year old singer-songwriter, it's “wake” in several senses of the word. There's the trail of a life and career behind her, the slipstream of lessons learned. There's the quiet observance and letting go of who she has been up until now as both an artist and a person. And most of all, there's the stirring of something new, an opening of a door and wide-eyed rush forward into a place of discovery and dizzying possibilities. And it's all set to a soundtrack that resonates with the warm uplift of the first day of spring.
In short, Nora Jane Struthers has fallen in love.
“The whole album is about strength through vulnerability,” she says. “That's what I've come to as an artist, and a human being, and I think it's the most powerful force in my life. I feel so much more like my childhood self now than I did over the past five years, than I have in my whole adult life. In my twenties, I had a tendency to compartmentalize pieces of my musical identity. For instance, how could I reconcile my love of both bluegrass and Pearl Jam? I did the same thing in my personal life, where I had this sort of idea of who I wanted to be, and ignored all these other pieces of myself, because I didn't think they fit into some imagined big picture.
“But this experience of falling in love blew that whole thing apart,” she continues. “Looking back, my previous two albums feel so safe. They had literary merit, contributing to the traditional canon in a way that I was proud of. But it all felt masked by these narratives that were not directly my own. These new songs are autobiographical. I'm looking inward, allowing that to be what my art is. To take away the narrative safety net and then the sonic safety net and just give myself over to my own story and my own feelings, was scary but exhilarating.”
That exhilaration courses through the whole album, with an unmoored feeling that reminds us that the gravitational direction of finding love is as much about rising as it is falling. Opener “The Same Road” percolates along with percussive banjo and side-stick then lifts into a panoramic chorus, while “Dreamin,'” soaked in classic Bakersfield good vibes, threads its infectious charm through with chugging train rhythms, twangy guitar and pedal steel. “When I Wake” is pure harmony bliss, with Struthers and Joe Overton echoing early '70s Gram & Emmylou. “The Wire” shimmers with poetic reflection (“The truth is I didn't see the wire until I saw the bird”) and the radio-ready “Lovin' You” pulls off the three-and-a-half minute miracle, with Struthers' warm, engaging alto finding fresh imagery like, “If I was a crocus lovin' you would be the spring / If I was an eagle lovin' you would be my wings . .” Other highlights include the fiery slide-guitar powered “I Ain't Holdin' Back,” the call-and-response, southern-fried “Don't Care” and the hushed, split-rail tenderness of “The South.” The whole record, a 53-minute celebration of that heart-to-heart, flesh-to-flesh connection that reminds us we're alive, also feels like a major artistic arrival.
Struthers' ascent to this new plateau has been a steady one. Born in Virginia and raised in New Jersey, she began playing as a pre-teen. attending festivals and fiddlers' conventions around the south with her banjo-playing father. “These were pretty much just a group of musicians camping in a muddy field for a week, playing tunes and singing songs,” she recalls. “But these traditional music communities greatly influenced me and informed my decision later to move to Nashville and try to become a professional musician.” After graduating from NYU with an education degree, she taught high school English in Brooklyn and put her music career on the back burner. But a visit to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the early 2000s changed that. Watching one of her heroes, Tim O'Brien, she stood in front of the stage, glanced back at the crowd and the mountains and thought, “This is what I want to do.” There followed that move to Nashville, much woodshedding as a writer and touring, with Bearfoot, and her first solo-fronted group, the Bootleggers (who won the 2008 Telluride band competition). Along the way, she worked with bluegrass stars like O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, and released two critically-acclaimed albums. But it was in 2012, when Struthers formed the Party Line, that everything started to come into sharper focus.
She says, “With the Party Line, I found the people I want to be with. And what instruments they play are what my band became. So I didn't find a fiddle player. I found a great electric guitar player who I love hanging around with, and who wants to commit to my music. What I love about our instrumentation is the balance between rock 'n' roll vibe and old time acoustic feeling. Those two specifically are the balance between my guitarist Josh Vana and Joe Overton. Josh plays with more of a rock feeling. Joe runs what I call the roots utility. He plays open backed banjo, resonator banjo, fiddle and pedal steel guitar. It's a really interesting balance between roots and rock. I don't know a lot of other female-fronted bands that are doing quite what we're doing, so I feel like maybe we have something unique, which is always a good thing.”
Having the right band also led Struthers to realize that she wanted to change her approach to record-making. “My last album Carnival took a step away from certain aspects of the digital, highly-produced approach. There's no auto-tuning. I made it with the band, not session players. But the songs weren't road-tested, so we put the arrangements together in the studio. After touring that record and seeing how the songs evolved as a result of playing them for audiences, I just knew that I wanted to make the next record afte