Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line will bring their traveling “Carnival” of acoustic Americana to Kingsport on Saturday, Feb. 1 for an 8 p.m. show at the Kingsport Renaissance Center.
Tickets to the concert, presented by the City of Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts in conjunction with Skyflight Productions, are $15.
Struthers and her band will showcase music from their latest album, “Carnival,” issued on the singer-songwriter’s own label in April 2013.
“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,” Struthers said. “That’s what I’m trying to do with this album — craft vignettes, and in some cases more developed narratives, about imaginary people’s lives.”
“Carnival” 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” features 14 original compositions in Struthers’ “classic Americana” vein.
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) and 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 instrumentalists Joe Overton (clawhammer banjo and harmony vocals), Drew Lawhorn (drums), Nick DiSebastian (upright bass and guitar) and Jack Devereux (fiddle). “Carnival” also includes musical guests such as producer Truitt on mandolin as well as singers Rachael Hester and Nick Woods.
Struthers and The Party Line have been supporting the album with heavy touring in theaters, clubs and at festivals, including appearances at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Merlefest and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
“Carnival’s” songs sport a timeline that stretches from the antebellum 19th-century South to the middle of the last century. Reflecting Struthers’ background in literature — she taught English before undertaking a full-time music career 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 said. “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 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,” said 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 of Bluegrass 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, she and bassist P.J. George 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.”
“My goal was to raise $20,000 in 30 days, and I raised $22,000,” she said. “It was all from touring and making new fans and meeting people.”
“Carnival” represents a quantum leap for the artist, 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 said. “I’ve been working to hone my skills so I can do that better.”
For tickets or more information, call (423) 392-8414 or visit www.EngageKingsport.com