Music News & Reviews

Nora Jane Struthers finds a growing audience for her story songs

Nora Jane Struthers and her band: from left, P.J. George, Drew Lawhorn, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Joe Overton.
Nora Jane Struthers and her band: from left, P.J. George, Drew Lawhorn, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Joe Overton. Courtesy of Nora Jane Struthers

A suitable sense of wonder emerges within the title tune to Nora Jane Struthers' new album, Carnival.

The song is set among the sights of bearded ladies, high-wire acts and fire breathers. True to the occasion, the New York-turned-Nashville songsmith conjures a sense of adventure that is rich with wide-eyed excitement. But Struthers also takes her time under the big top. No one is going to rush her.

"I don't care how long we stay," Struthers sings in a voice full of light but pronounced confidence, "as long as we can see everything there is to see."

There is a working philosophy within the song that speaks to all of the music on Carnival and, to an extent, to Struthers' career. It's a notion of embracing the inspirations that have figured prominently in her musical upbringing while keeping eyes and ears open to all of the music around her — and especially to the people creating it. There might just be a place for some of those sounds in her songs, too.

"I think we prefer to make our own opportunities," said Struthers, who performs Friday at Natasha's Bistro in Lexington and Saturday as part of the Stonebridge Summer Saturday Night Concert Series in Wilmore. "For this last album, those opportunities started with the songs. Once I realized I had a group of songs that were ready to be recorded and that they sort of belonged together, I began looking into who the best people would be to make the recording with me. It really became more a question of 'Who are these people that I want to be traveling around the country with?' and not so much 'What instruments do I need?' You know?"

A listen to Carnival reveals an often antique accent that sounds as if it was fashioned somewhere between the front parlor and the back porch. The album-opening The Baker's Boy, for instance, revolves around mother-daughter girl talk expressed in vocals that initially sound steeped in adult confidence. But Struthers' singing also opens itself up to flights of folkish fancy.

Similarly, the accompanying music works off of quiltlike textures of banjo and mandolin, giving the tune a heavily traditional air. But then drums enter to take the tune briskly across country lines.

"The themes of these songs basically established themselves," Struthers said. "These were story songs from the female perspective that, historically and geographically, were kind of based in the American South. So once I realized that I had this common theme and this common perspective, I was able hone in on it a little bit more and write more purposely with that in mind.

"I think the people make the music. Each song is really crafted by each musician that's playing on it. That's what makes them so special. Three of my four band members are really well rooted and grounded in traditional American music styles, including old-time, bluegrass, folk, country, swing, etc. My drummer does not come from that background at all. He comes from a more contemporary blues and R&B-based scene. So what he brings really changes the flavor in a way that I think makes the songs and the recordings more accessible."

Not surprisingly, Struthers was surrounded by music in her youth. At the forefront were the songs and styles she was introduced to by her father.

"He was a musician, but not a professional musician," she said. "Music was his hobby — his whole life, really — but he always had other means of making money. Still, music was a huge part of my childhood and my whole life because of my dad.

"There was always music playing at the house, if not from a record then by my dad playing an instrument. He plays the banjo and the guitar. We also went to a lot of concerts and festivals, which was really important in showing me the importance of a shared musical experience."

The Virginia native ventured to New York University's Steinhart School of Education and eventually taught English at a charter school in Brooklyn. The first primary outlets for her vintage-flavored story songs weren't bluegrass festivals or country dance halls but New York clubs like CBGBs and The Cutting Room.

So how did she decide between continuing to teach and pursuing a professional career with her songs?

"The easiest answer is that I simply have a very real understanding of what it would be like to feel regret," she said.

"There is still a long road ahead of me. But every place that I return to play, I have a larger audience, even if it's only five or 10 people more. To me, that's a huge deal. Name recognition is the name of the game when it comes to anything that you're trying to pursue. So I feel like the ball is rolling. Now, it's just about staying on the road and playing more shows."


Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line

■ 8 p.m. Aug. 2 at Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. $10. (859) 259-2754.

■ 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at Downtown Green on Rice St., Wilmore. Free.