Sideshows and Sequins: Nora Jane Struthers’ Carnival
Late afternoon sun shimmers along the Colorado River in Marble Falls, Texas, where Nora Jane Struthers is nursing a beer on the patio before her show at the River City Grille and telling a story that might one day become a song.
Struthers and her band, The Party Line, had spent the previous three nights at a ranch in South Texas, about 100 miles southwest of Houston.
“On the first night, our hosts were warning us about all the perils of the ranch. They told us to watch out for copperheads and rattlesnakes. There were water moccasins in the river, scorpions, alligators, cows that kick, fire ants that sting … the list just kept going and going,” Struthers says, laughing. “I feel like there might be a song there.” Where others see anecdotes, Struthers sees songs. Storytelling has been the lifeblood of her music since she stopped teaching English at a charter school in Brooklyn five years ago and moved to Nashville to pursue a new career as a singer and songwriter.
There have been many lessons for Struthers since she left the classroom. One came from Nashville folk, bluegrass and country musician Tim O’Brien. “I had already started this song and I had it to a place where I liked it a lot, but it wasn’t good enough. And I knew that,” Struthers says. “So I brought it to Tim and he pointed out that the conflict was not clear. And I was like, ‘Oh, conflict! That is important!’ Duh, I was an English teacher, I really should have known that. But he brought that to light for me in regards to songwriting.”
O’Brien also passed along this piece of songwriting wisdom from Bill Monroe: “You can take something that’s not about love and make it about love anytime you want.”
Then there’s the line she once heard folk singer Arlo Guthrie utter from the stage during a show outside of Austin: Writing a song is like fishing. “The punch line was, ‘Just make sure you’re not standing downstream of Bob Dylan.’ Which I thought was hilarious,” Struthers says. “But I kind of feel that way sometimes. The songs are out there and you just have to give yourself the time and the right head space to focus in on them.”
Inspiration sometimes finds Struthers when she least expects it. “Look Out on the Mountain,” a haunting song about a young mother left to fend for herself and a sick baby in a remote cabin from her self-titled debut album, came to her while driving through the Smoky Mountains. When Struthers points out that her favorite thing about “Look Out on the Mountain” is the use of an unreliable narrator, she sounds as much like a novelist as a singer.
The entire structure of Struthers’ latest album, Carnival, was created to tell a story. Each song is written from a female perspective and loosely arranged to form a narrative progressing from childhood to old age and, eventually, death. She believes story songs create a stronger shared experience because listeners are brought to a common starting point.
“If I’m just singing a song about love, everyone is bringing their own love experience to it,” Struthers explains. “That can be a really positive and moving thing. But it’s a little more individualistic. Story songs can be interpreted in different ways, but everyone hears the same story. And stories can help make people more empathetic to situations and people they don’t have any real life experience with, and that’s something I aspire to do.”
The song “Two Women” from Carnival tells a story of grief from the opposite perspectives of a female slave and the slave owner’s wife, inspired by slave narratives Struthers studied in college: “Hatti lives in fear of his knock on her door / Happens almost every night / Then her terror becomes something more.”
While there are many stories that could be told in reference to slavery, Struthers wanted to write about the pressures all women had to deal with during that time in America’s history. “There were five virtues that a white woman was supposed to have in order to be considered virtuous,” Struthers says. “The white women weren’t allowed to sexualized at all, but the slaves were. “Two Women” talks about slavery without being about slavery. It just talks about being a woman.”
Other stories on Carnival are more lighthearted. “The Baker’s Boy” is a whimsical retelling of a mother’s advice on love and marriage. The title track paints a vivid scene of red balloons, bearded ladies in yellow dresses, splashing mermaids and sweet potato fries. “Jack of Diamonds” is a story taken directly from the childhood of Struthers’ grandmother, who grew up in a small North Carolina town called Dunn, with strictly religious parents who considered even a deck of playing cards to be a foothold for Satan. “She said, ‘Though it may seem harmless, a game of cards can lead / To greed and lust and whiskey, even infidelity,’” Struthers sings. “She made me swear to never hold the Devil’s deck again / But I’ve still got the Jack of Diamonds underneath my bed / Yeah, I’ve still got the Jack of Diamonds underneath my bed.”
The roots of Struthers’ love for words and music are easily traced: Her father, Alan, played with a bluegrass band in Minnesota and wrote a novel about country and rock legend Gram Parsons as his doctoral thesis in American studies.
Struthers was born in Fairfax, Va., and the family moved to Avon, Conn., six months later. They moved again when she was 4, to Ridgewood, N.J., where she grew up singing and playing music with her father. As a little girl, Struthers would watch out the front window and greet him with a yodel at the end of the day. The two traveled to bluegrass festivals and fiddler conventions along the East Coast as she got older.
Perhaps because of the contrast with her suburban New Jersey childhood, Struthers developed a fascination with rural American life, an interest that continues to ripple through her work. “The Blight” includes vivid details from the destruction of forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains and she researched historic Dust Bowl articles and photographs for “The Dust.” From the Americana music she creates to the vintage dresses she collects and wears on stage, Struthers folds history and tradition into a thoroughly modern style. “I just find it intriguing to learn about different cultures in different states and regions of the country,” Struthers says. “People were able live off the land through most of human history. Of course, a lot of struggles came with that. I’m not painting it as some kind of a bucolic paradise.”
Struthers interest in cultures isn’t limited to this continent, however. She studied English Education and Africana Studies at New York University. While at NYU, she sang with an all-female a cappella group called The Cleftomaniacs and performed at clubs like CBGB and The Cutting Room in New York City.
Immediately after graduating in 2005, Struthers began teaching at The Williamsburg Charter High School. The demands of a new teaching career were intense, but Struthers made time to play shows with her father under the name Dirt Road Sweetheart around New York and New Jersey. They eventually recorded an album called I Heard the Bluebirds Sing at Cabin Studios in Leesburg, Virginia.
The idea of pursuing music fulltime kept building in Struthers’ mind, but quitting a secure job to chase a dream seemed impossible. Until she realized it was the only possibility. “Fear is a powerful motivator,” Struthers says. “I think most people are motivated by fear to not change. But if you flip that around and decide to fear having a lifelong regret of not doing something, that in itself is motivation to take a risk and make a change. So once I realized that I would always regret it if I didn’t try this, I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
Struthers loaded all her belongings into a 10-year old Honda Odyssey and drove to Nashville in August 2008. That fall she recorded Nora Jane Struthers with Nashville A-list musicians like O’Brien and Stuart Duncan and producer Brent Truitt (Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss). “I was so green when I made that record,” Struthers says. “It was like I just stopped being an English teacher and started being a musician. I remember feeling massively insecure about my musical abilities as I was going into the studio with all those great musicians, but feeling like I could stand on the quality of my songs.”
Recording an album and releasing an album are two different things. So Struthers went to work assembling an independent management team to help her put the album out. In the meantime she toured with a band of rotating Nashville musicians dubbed the Bootleggers, which usually included longtime collaborator P.J. George.
A career-launching break came when Struthers, wearing a pink 1940s dress, won the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest with the Bootleggers in June 2010. “I envisioned myself winning the competition in that dress,” she says. “It was gorgeous, I brought it with me and saved it for the last day just in case we got in the final round.”
A segment of Struthers’ website is dedicated to her vintage fashion blog, where she has posts photos of her favorite outfits and thrift store bargains. One dress has yet to make an appearance. Struthers bought a 1950s red sequined gown at a store called Talk of the Town outside Cincinnati a while back, but is saving it for one very special career milestone. “I’ve never worn it and it’s waiting for the Grand Ole Opry.” Sequins, Struthers says, are so Nashville.
Two days after winning Telluride, Struthers’ solo debut album was finally released. Later that year, she and George joined Americana acoustic quintet Bearfoot and released the album American Story in 2011.
By 2012, Struthers knew she wanted to make a second full-length solo album and had a collection of songs ready to go. She turned to Kickstarter to fund the project that eventually became Carnival, raising more than $22,000 from supporters in less than four weeks.
Struthers recruited versatile instrumentalists P.J. George, Joe Overton, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Drew Lawhorn to form The Party Line and the new band went to work rehearsing and arranging the songs in their Nashville neighborhood. “They all brought so much to the album,” Struthers says. “They looked at each song individually, but they helped fit it all together beautifully.”
Truitt returned to produce an album that has a more contemporary sound than any of Struthers’ previous work. Carnival has drawn praise from critics and spent more than three months in the Top 20 of the Americana Radio charts, peaking at No. 7.
“I feel like these songs really belong together,” she says. “It would have been easier to cut some and make a shorter album. I’m happy that I went the extra mile and did a 14-song record, even though that’s not the standard thing to do anymore.”
Struthers has relentlessly crisscrossed the U.S. with The Party Line since Carnival’s release in April, playing in homes, restaurants, clubs, theaters, concert halls and festivals from Texas to Michigan, Virginia to California. And she couldn’t be happier.
“There’s no other way to do it if you’re an independent artist,” Struthers says. “I would welcome opportunities to be in front of more people. But I’m not really interested in bending what I’m doing in any way. As long as we can keep playing for people, it’s going to grow. That’s just the way that it works.”
Five years after making her big leap, Struthers feels empowered as a singer, instrumentalist and bandleader. She wants to encourage others to do what makes them happy, even if it means taking a risk. Others who might be working at jobs they don’t love, others who dream of doing something different. “One of my missions as an artist is to sort of spread the idea that you can make your own path,” she says. “I want to encourage people to believe in themselves.”
Struthers can’t envision a time when she won’t be making music and touring; her dream has changed accordingly: “Selling out Red Rocks [Amphitheater] in Colorado would really make me feel like, ‘Okay, this is it, we did it.’”
There’s only one problem. Struthers doesn’t have a dress picked out for Red Rocks.
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