Nora Jane Struthers – ‘Ain’t Holding Back’
Nora Jane Struthers takes the stage at The Livery, a former horse stable brought back to life as a rustic brewery in the downtown Arts District of Benton Harbor, Michigan. It’s late August and the heat from the crowd lingers inside the brick walls as beads of moisture sweat down raised pint glasses. Behind her smile, Struthers, who has been dealing with a self-described “sinus thing,” is feeling a bit frustrated.
The past two stops on this Midwest swing have felt stagnant, she says later, as the illness has kept her from pushing her vocals too hard or too loud or too high. The thought of not being able to give her best, especially at what has become one of her favorite venues, crept into her head someplace in Ohio, as she and her band, The Party Line, traveled north in their black tour van to this southwest corner of Michigan.
Fueled by extra doses of Vitamin C and an uncharacteristic pre-show nap, Struthers eases up to the microphone to open the show – her third at the venue in less than a year. Later, she admits that neither remedy seemed to be doing the trick during the gig’s first few numbers.
Surrounded by her bandmates – Joe Overton on banjo, fiddle, and harmony vocals, Drew Lawhorn on drums, Brian Duncan Miller on upright bass, and Joshua Vana on electric and acoustic slide guitar – Struthers asks the crowd’s permission to play a new tune, a request that they happily oblige.
She and the band launch into “When I Wake,” from her new album Wake due Feb. 24. This will be Struthers’ third album outside of the critically acclaimed post-bluegrass band Bearfoot, and her second with The Party Line backing her up. Her previous effort, 2013’s Carnival, cracked the Top 10 on Americana radio charts, ending the year at No. 24 in the Top 100 Americana Albums for Airplay. While that disc was largely acoustic, dripping with old-time folk and bluegrass flavor, Wake boasts a more evolved blend of roots and rock, with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar.
At face value, the title track is a love song both rich and sweet, with a dose of 1950s nostalgia. It’s reminiscent of something famous family duos like the Louvin Brothers or Everly Brothers might produce. At The Livery, supported by Overton’s harmonies from the opening lyric, Struthers lingers over every word, holding on and stretching each note while allowing enough space to let them resonate and breathe.
As she reaches the song’s crescendo, it’s clear to everyone in the room that her “sinus thing” is no longer holding her back.
You are my bright shining star; you guide the way
And when the night is cold and dark, I look for you and here you are
I am living in a dream when I wake
Like the sky is blue, I’ll tell you true, I love you like meat loves salt
With a heart so kind your lovely mind will hear my call
And when my fears like storm clouds roll
You talk to me; you calm my soul
I’ll tell you true, like the sky is blue, I love you like meat loves salt
“This sounds really hippie, but I felt like the energy from the crowd was healing me,” the 31-year-old Struthers says a few months after the performance, on the phone from her home in East Nashville, TN. “I really do think that. I think there’s something really special and powerful about people sharing an experience together. And for me, it always starts with the songs.”
This is apparent, back at The Livery, where the crowd won’t let Struthers leave the stage.
“Really?” she asks them, as they stand and cheer at the end of her second encore of the night. She walks back to Lawhorn behind the drum kit, as the other Party Line members lean in for this musician’s version of a football huddle.
Struthers calls an audible and the band launches into a cover version of The Cranberries’ 1993 pop hit “Dreams.” This roots-upped version may be missing the distinctive Irish-accented croon of Dolores O’Riordan, but Struthers hits every note as the crowd watches in gleeful awe.
Minutes later, the band retreats into a small side room just off the stage. It’s there that Lawhorn nominates the bandleader as the show’s most valuable player. It’s the type of acknowledgement Struthers is usually the one to dole out after each performance to one of the boys in the band for pushing his limits or for coming up with something new or unusual or particularly fun. It’s the type of bonding ritual that keeps the monotony of the tour at bay and keeps her road warriors deeply loyal.
“I generally don’t get MVP, but Drew called me MVP that night,” Struthers says, proudly, on the phone back home. “As the leader, I get to give the MVP to other people. It was funny to hear it from him, but he saw it. He saw the moment where I suddenly felt better and realized I could really do this. And I didn’t want to stop.”
While there has been some change in The Party Line’s lineup since Carnival, Struthers has always referred to them as a band of friends. It’s her loyalty to them, in fact, that makes her scoff at any description of Wake as a solo album. “The sound of the album is a total collaborative band thing,” she says. “I certainly was not in there telling people what to play. That’s what I loved about the music of the ’90s. It wasn’t some guy in a suit putting a bunch of studio musicians in a room to back this artist. They were people who made music together. That’s what I’m the most proud of.”
It All Started in New Jersey
Struthers’ music is so steeped in roots, bluegrass, and folk traditions, it’s almost hard to reconcile that she didn’t learn her craft on a back porch somewhere in Appalachia. Although she was born in Northern Virginia, when she was four years old her family settled in the village of Ridgewood, NJ, in Bergen County, about 20 miles west of the Bronx, NY.
Counting late jazz drummer Sonny Igoe, Broadway actress and Annie star Martha Byrne, and Tony Award-winning actor Robert Sean Leonard – best known for his roles in the movie Dead Poets Society and on the TV show House – among its more notable residents, Ridgewood seems an unlikely place to cultivate a love of roots music. This close to Broadway, it would have been more likely for Struthers to develop a penchant for show tunes, or at the very least, to count herself among Bruce Springsteen’s devotees, which almost seems to be a requirement for Garden State residents.
Instead, Struthers’ father, Alan Struthers, cultivated in her a deep appreciation for string, acoustic, and folk music. As an amateur guitarist and banjo player who grew up during the 1960s folk boom, the elder Struthers presented a seemingly endless supply of quiet yet powerful narratives that seeped into his daughter’s songwriting soul.
“It’s kind of a weird thing growing up in New Jersey with this folky, roots music influence, but my primary musical lens is the lens of my father and his influences,” Struthers says. “I grew up playing and singing a lot of those duets with him. The first CD I ever owned was The Mamas & the Papas Greatest Hits. And, as a younger kid, that vocal harmony was something that moved me and spoke to me, and still does. As I got older, it became the storytelling aspect of the songs that I really connected to.”
While music was ever-present in her home, her interest in storytelling also drew Struthers into literature, particularly the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Although she was writing songs and singing with her father, by the time she graduated from Ridgewood High School, Struthers had settled on becoming an English teacher when she left for New York University.
“As a high school student I had a number of really wonderful teachers, and one of them was my English teacher,” she says. “I was really aware of the power and influence a teacher can have on a young person’s self-esteem and perspective on life. Since I had been able to learn so much from literature and stories and songs, I felt that I could offer that same experience to students as a teacher.” So, after graduating from NYU, Struthers became an English teacher at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Charter High School. It was here that she learned her own lessons about social class, the privilege in her own life, and an awareness of the hands people are dealt, which have become common themes in her songs.
“I was teaching underprivileged, marginalized young adults, which was a powerful experience for me,” she says. “I was successful at what I sought out to do, but there was still some unhappiness in a deep place.”
In 2008, at age 24, during her third year of teaching, she was promoted to be the head of the school’s English department. She taught during the day and split her nights between music and studying educational leadership at NYU’s graduate school. It was then that a conversation with her mom, Jeanna, steered Struthers back to her musical path.
“I kind of had a sit-down talk with my mom and she said, ‘Don’t you think you’ll always regret it if you don’t do this?’” Struthers says. “I had never put it in those terms in my mind. Once she planted that way of looking at it, it seemed totally logical that it was the only option. I was more afraid of regret instead of failure, so that was the tipping point for me. I gave my notice, stayed until the end of the school year, which was July 3, and on July 4 I went for a run on the beach. I remember feeling like I had just escaped a very unsatisfying life.”
For two years, Struthers had been teaming up with her father on stage as the duo Dirt Road Sweetheart. They’d play coffee shops and open mics and smaller venues around New York City and New Jersey. But in that summer she left her teaching job, they recorded an album of covers and Struthers’ originals, I Heard the Bluebirds Sing, at Cabin Studios in Leesburg, VA. It was the push she needed, and in August, she packed up and made the move to Nashville.
Look Out, Music City
“It was a really magical time for me,” she says. “There was a burgeoning old-time and bluegrass scene which was fueled by the Wednesday night jam at The 5 Spot. It was so hopping and it made making friends really effortless. I wrote most of the songs on my first album in a great creative burst. It was just great. I loved it. But I was such a green performer and I was aware of it. I had been singing my whole life but not in a professional capacity. So with my first album, I thought what I could really stand on was the songwriting.”
Despite her inexperience on stage, Struthers and her then-band, The Bootleggers, won the neo-traditional competition at the Appalachian String Band Gathering in West Virginia in 2009 and the esteemed Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition in Colorado in 2010, two days before the release of her self-titled debut album.
That record, produced by industry stalwart Brent Truitt and featuring a range of guest artists like acclaimed singer and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, fiddler Stuart Duncan, dobro player Rob Ickes, bluegrass guitarist Bryan Sutton, and bassist Dennis Crouch, stayed in the Top 40 of the Americana Music Association radio chart for 14 weeks.
It also proved that Struthers could not only sing, but also write in a range of roots-based styles, from the mournful, first-person murder ballad “Willie” to the bluegrass wailer “Greenbrier County” to the Western tune “Cowgirl Yodel No. 3.”
“I think that’s when I really turned to story songs,” Struthers says. “Just as I was drawn to literature and stories, I valued getting to try to understand someone else’s experience through the telling of their point of view.”
Soon, with her debut album still on the charts, Struthers’ East Nashville neighbor Angela Oudean unexpectedly asked if she would join the popular Americana/post-bluegrass band Bearfoot. Their lead singer, Odessa Jorgensen, had left and their lineup suddenly fell apart. With only Oudean and Jason Norris remaining from the lineup that first formed in 1999 in Cordova, Alaska, the band regrouped with Struthers, bass player P.J. George, and fellow Alaskan Todd Grebe. Sonically, it was a natural fit, and within six months the new lineup was in the studio with the daunting task of recording the follow up to Bearfoot’s 2009 Compass Records release Doors & Windows, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart.
The new album, 2011’s American Story, showcased the strong songwriting of Struthers and Grebe while carving out a musical voice that cast a very modern spin on the band’s string-driven sound. Struthers wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s 10 songs, including “Tell Me a Story,” whose video reached No. 2 three weeks in a row on CMT.
While the project was collaborative and the songs energetic, beautiful, and inspired, American Story was the only album Struthers recorded with that band. The sometimes strained dynamic between the five musicians made it clear to her that this was not going to be a long-term marriage. That, coupled with the fact that a new batch of songs that no longer fit the group’s vibe was pouring out of her, made her decide it was a good time to move on.
“I learned so much from [Bearfoot],” Struthers says. “I learned from every single person in that band, but especially Angela. I think I learned really valuable skills about being a businesswoman and being a professional from her. Just following their example catapulted me into this level as a performer that would have taken me five years, the hard way, on my own, to learn. I’m grateful I got to do it. But at the same time it was really scary to go back out on my own.”
A New Ride
Along with Struthers, Bearfoot’s bassist P.J. George, her then-boyfriend, also left the band, and the two quickly assembled friends Overton, Lawhorn and Aaron Jonah Lewis on fiddle to work on Struthers’ new batch of songs. The result was the formation of Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line, and their groundbreaking album Carnival.
The 14-song album, also produced by Truitt, showed off Struthers’ skills as both a storyteller and warm, persuasive vocalist. Each of its songs offers a vignette from a woman’s perspective, stretching from the antebellum South to the middle of the 20th century. With songs placed in chronological order, the album itself also weaves a narrative.
There are stories from a young girl, a teenager, a woman, an old woman and beyond the grave, and each song is like a little window into somebody else’s life. As Struthers described it to the Herald-Palladium in Saint Joseph, MI, shortly after the album’s release, it’s “as if you were popping in and out of carnival tents and then emerging from each tent with a slightly altered perspective.”
Her song “Beyond the Farm” is written from a perspective of grieving parents sending their child into a dangerous world, while “Two Women” considers the cruelty of slavery from the point of view of both a female slave and the wife of the slave owner who abused her.
Struthers also tapped into her literary roots. Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes inspired the tune “Mountain Child.” “In Angela’s Ashes,” she explains, “he writes about how he has to go down to the bar every Friday to get his dad’s paycheck before his dad drinks it all away. I started to try to write that same story set in Appalachia instead of Ireland, and I don’t know when it hit me that it should be a girl, and that by doing so I could make it more tragic, forcing her into prostitution.”
It was songs like that which led fellow singer-songwriter David Mayfield to declare “Nora Jane is one of the best songwriter-singers this side of the Himalayas!” Carnival peaked at No. 7 on Americana radio charts, and the video for the catchy single “Bike Ride” debuted at No. 1 on CMT Pure’s 12-Pack Countdown, against competition from names like Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Experiencing that kind of success, and the busy road schedule that comes with it, opened up Struthers in unexpected ways.
In July, for example, she released Country EP No. 1, a six-song collection that’s an ode to traditional country music. It features her and Overton covering “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” the 1963 duet originally recorded by George Jones and Melba Montgomery, and the 1959 hit “(’Til) I Kissed You” by The Everly Brothers. The two covers are surrounded by four originals – “In A Crowd,” co-written with Donna Ulisse, “The Skillet Blues,” co-written by Carolyn Martin, “Outside of Town,” and “Used To The Noise.” While the songs didn’t find a home on either Carnival or Wake, Struthers says, they did flex her songwriting muscles.
While the instrumentation and form of Struthers’ music draws on her traditionalist roots, the addition of drums on Carnival made her more accessible to a contemporary audience. It also bent the record toward more of a progressive roots-rock band sound, which, she says now, was the start of her own rock-’n’-roll awakening.
“It was a natural evolution,” she says. “I definitely have roots in grunge. I grew up in the ’90s, and I love Pearl Jam. That music is a part of my foundation, even though I grew up playing folk music. I love acoustic music, but I think I always wanted to be in a rock band – I just didn’t know how. You can play folk music all by yourself. You can’t play rock-’n’-roll all by yourself. It takes a whole band. I think it just took me a long time to grow into a sound that I always wanted to produce.”
Growing and Waking Up
Part of that evolution came during a year of both personal and professional growth. While Carnival opened up more professional opportunities for Struthers, her personal relationship with George came to an end. When he left the band – he’s now a member of Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys – fiddler Lewis followed.
Struthers explores that time in her life on “The Wire,” the seventh track on Wake. “That song is about my wonderful ex-boyfriend P.J., and how I was in denial and it’s just sad,” she says, searching for the words. “I wrote it a couple months after the breakup, just sorting through how it all happened. I try to live my life in a way where I won’t have any regrets and try to treat people well. I wished I had done certain things differently, but I found myself in a situation that was just really hard.”
Despite her personal loss, the departure of George and Lewis opened the possibility for Struthers to further expand on her sound. After several months borrowing friends – including Nick DiSebastian, who replaced George on the final leg of The Party Line’s 2013 tour, and Cleveland-based band Hillbilly Idol’s Paul Kovac – to fill in on the road, Struthers added Miller on bass and Vana on electric guitar, with Overton picking up fiddle duties when needed.
“I didn’t sit down and say ‘I want to make a rock record, so I need to find an electric guitar player,’” Struthers says. “I just found two great people, who are equally great musicians, who I wanted to be in this band, and one of them happens to play electric guitar.”
The change in instrumentation also coincided with changes in Struthers’ approach to songwriting. Until last year, she says, she was primarily moved by stories or pieces of stories – whether a snippet from a book, movie, or song. The songs on Wake, however, leave behind such story songs and the wistful narratives of strangers in favor of tunes inspired entirely by Struthers’ own life experiences – most particularly, falling in love. The result is her most personal, autobiographical collection of songs to date.
“For a while there I didn’t have anything from my own life that I could put into words and really touch on the universality that makes a song powerful,” she says. “So I was using other people’s stories and putting myself into them, but projecting a little bit. But now I’m writing more autobiographical and personal songs, so that’s new.”
What’s also new is the relationship that inspired many of the songs on the record. At first Struthers deflects the subject by making a tongue-in-cheek comparison to Fleetwood Mac, a band known for its tangled relationships, but then she surrenders, acknowledging that she and Overton are romantically involved.
“This is definitely a record of the heart, I think more than anything else that I have ever done,” she says. “I can’t deny that Joe isn’t a huge part of that. … The theme of the whole album, how I see it, is strength through vulnerability. The emotional growth I’ve experienced over the past year was so profound that I wanted to share it with people. And the best way I know how to do that is through my songs.”
The song Struthers debuted at The Livery, “When I Wake,” is one example of that. It was written on a homestead in southwestern Virginia, just outside of Blacksburg. The band had just gotten off the road and was staying at a friend’s house when the early morning light woke Struthers.
“Before Joe and I got together, I was dreaming about him every single night,” she says. “So when we got together it felt like I was living in the dream. When I woke up that morning, turned over and saw Joe there, I just felt incredibly lucky and grateful, and I wrote the song in one sitting.”
She adds that the tune marked another distinct change in her songwriting. “I think I expanded my versatility in phrasing with that song,” she says. “I left a lot more space in there than I typically had left. There was this gentle space between lyrics that I feel was as powerful as the words themselves.”
In addition to that expanded lyrical versatility, she says, having Lawhorn behind the drums for the past three years has helped expand her repertoire of guitar rhythms and patterns, specifically on “The Wire” and “Lovin’ You,” which she says has a “sort of Tom Petty thing happening.” Struthers also does some fingerpicking on the final song on the album, “The South” – an ode to her adoptive home.
“I remember writing ‘The South’ in this sort of stream of consciousness, and being aware that I was not going to judge myself as I was writing it,” Struthers says. “A previous version of myself would have stopped writing this song. I would have thought it was too self-indulgent, too personal, and I would have been judging myself into not creating it. Instead, I just wrote it and put it away, and when I came back to it, I totally loved it. The more personal you get when creating art, the more universal it is. I think this song speaks to that.”
Similarly, “Dreamin’” conveys the restlessness of being home while itching to get back on tour, and “Mistake” finds her surrendering to vulnerability in a relationship.
“I wrote the songs on an acoustic guitar like I always do,” she says. “I didn’t do a whole lot of reflecting on the songwriting during the process. In the past, I was inserting editing as I was writing. Writing these songs was a much more visceral, cathartic experience.”
Lyrically, “Let Go” – which she co-wrote with Nashville-based singer-songwriter Robby Hecht, who also co-wrote “Bike Ride” – deals with the subject of addiction. Musically, it is perhaps the least rootsy in this collection of songs, featuring Vana’s wailing electric guitar and a bit of a vocal edge from Struthers. “It touches on the idea of not being able to control what pieces of you get presented as who you are to the world,” she says. “I think everyone who has loved ones with addiction problems has fears that it’s going to creep into their own life. Acting out of fear is probably the most toxic thing a person can do. And so it’s about trying to let go of that.”
“Let Go” is the only song on the album that Struthers didn’t write alone, and it’s also the first tune off Wake that she has turned into a music video. In the video, directed by Dycee Wildman, Struthers is cast as both a well-coiffed 1950s Donna Reed-type housewife sipping cocktails and her contemporary self, examining the remains of a dilapidated old house. Although generations apart, the characters are seemingly connected, especially by the vulnerability that’s displayed throughout the clip.
“I wanted the video to have a different or expanded narrative to the lyrics of the song,” Struthers says. “If you’re going to make a video, you should say something new. Dycee came up with a treatment of women from the past in this house and a more modern woman in the space where these things happened. I wanted to explore that a little bit.”
At least some of the exploration on Wake was no doubt due to the spirit of the room where it was recorded. Struthers and The Party Line spent 10 days in late July and early August 2014 at The Bomb Shelter studio, whose central piece of equipment, an MCI JH-600 analog mixing console, was salvaged by its owner, Andrija Tokic, when the Washington, DC-area studio he worked in as a teenager went all digital. The board in this almost-hidden building on the edge of East Nashville has become a bit of a local legend among musicians who like to record live to tape in a room with sweet-smelling cedar walls, where they can all play together.
For Struthers, the analog recording was the perfect vehicle to capture the same passion and musicianship she and her bandmates have become known for in their live stage show. But, unlike her previous two efforts, Struthers took on the extra task of producing the album herself – “and I’m never doing it again,” she says, laughing. “It was exhausting!”
“For me, art is all about connecting,” she adds. “We can’t keep striving for this mechanical perfection and expect to connect. Being imperfect is a part of being human, and being human is beautiful. To me, this record is so human, and it’s imperfect, which makes it way better. It’s hard as an artist to accept imperfection, because we all want to be great, but at a certain point I came to a realization that perfection isn’t always great; that I needed to let go musically, too. That’s why the album is so powerful to me.”
Struthers tapped into her connection with her audience for a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised $48,500 after an already ambitious $40,000 goal. So, with the extra money, she will be turning three more songs into videos.
“I set my goal higher than I thought we could achieve, which is not what you’re actually supposed to do,” Struthers says. “You’re supposed to set your goal lower. But I believed in this album, so I just took a leap of faith. I felt like a sea of people jumped up and caught me. It’s just incredible.”
Struggles and Joys
Struthers doesn’t shy away from talking about the struggles and joys of being an independent musician, and like with songwriting, she has a lot to say about the subject. In fact, a video she posted on her website and social media nine days before her Kickstarter campaign ended addressed exactly why she was seeking the funds.
Called “Why Kickstarter?” Struthers explained why she thought her industry was “temporarily broken.” In it she holds up a sign showing that her album Carnival had 116,000 spins at the time on Spotify, for which she received $19.02 in royalties, and how that ratio of compensation just can’t support her work.
“We saw a huge surge in support after I posted that video,” Struthers says. “I’m about full disclosure. I’m not just trying to make money, I’m trying to do this thing, and to do it, I need some money. The music industry now is such a mystery even to those of us who are in it. It’s a big question mark how it works, and it’s ever-evolving.”
Her own musical evolution may be best summed up by the opening track on Wake, “The Same Road,” which led NPR Music to say that Struthers “embodies everything you could want in an Americana singer-songwriter,” and the album’s fourth tune, “Mistake.” The former, written shortly after moving into her new house with Overton, is about catching herself in a strange, yet profoundly happy moment. The latter, meanwhile, is about giving love without the promise of its return. Both open with electric guitar licks, but as soon as her vocals come in, the lyrical vulnerability comes straight from Struthers’ profound musical well, which has only gotten deeper in the two years since Carnival. Whether the musical background is steeped in old-time folk or bluegrass, as much of her previous work has been, or, like Wake, boasts a more evolved blend of roots and rock, it only means that placing Struthers into a neat, easy label has gotten a bit more challenging. While it speaks to her growing confidence as a performer, as the disc’s release approaches, Struthers is trying to remain pragmatic.
“I’ve been setting my own expectations really low,” she says. “Honestly, I haven’t put any energy in the good things that can happen. All I know is that I’ve made something that I’m really proud of. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, and I don’t even have any hopes for it because my hopes are realized. I made it.”
She lets that last sentence linger, reflecting on the journey she’s taken to get to this point. And, just like another song title on her forthcoming album, it’s clear, now more than ever, that she “Ain’t Holding Back.”
“In the music business you kind of only lose if you quit,” Struthers says. “If you can stay in the game and keep building, you will find people who value what you do. In my experience, the longer I’ve been in it, the more people I’ve found that have valued my art, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Jeremy D. Bonfiglio is a South Bend, IN-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in No Depression, The Writer, Notre Dame Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Indianapolis Star, among others. He is the staff features writer for The Herald-Palladium newspaper in Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor, MI, and the author of A Notre Dame Man: The Mike DeCicco Story.
Lead photo of Nora Jane Struthers courtesy Shorefire Entertainment; Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line band photo by Todd Roeth.