“I’ve always viewed my life as having these two parallel dreams,” says Nora Jane Struthers. “I really wanted a family so badly, and there were so many challenges to creating that with my infertility. I have also wanted to always be a musician and a professional performing artist.”
In early 2020, as she hit the road in support of her last album Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words, Struthers was successfully balancing her two dreams. The way forward seemed clear, though not without its difficulties. Ten days into the tour, the pandemic shut down everything.
As many of us discovered, losing your livelihood and professional momentum can be humbling. But it can also be transformative, altering the way you look at life and the world at large. And for Struthers, it became the well-spring for a strong return with her emotionally bracing new release, Back To Cast Iron.
“Letting go of something that I loved so much and trying to come to terms with what I was going to put in its place – that’s the story of the album,” Struthers says. “And the story of my life right now. I’m navigating what it looks like to be a full-time caregiver to two children, and trying to figure out how to balance that, while finding new ways of seeking joy.”
While such big changes could easily inspire quiet musical reflection, Struthers chooses a more extroverted approach. Starting with “Is It Hope?” and “Oh To Be Home,” a pair of sky-gazing three-chord wonders, the album locks into a mostly uptempo groove. “Carhenge” is a speedometer-ticking rocker about a rusty roadside sculpture that’s “sexier than Cleopatra,” and the California country-flavored “Life Of A Dream” is like a spiritual Marie Kondo-style recalibration. The old school honky tonk “Children They Need You (All Of The Time)” replaces the usual trope of broken hearts and busted relationships with something more insistently needy while the bluegrass-flavored “Trying To Get Ready” touts preparedness (“Roots in the cellar, grits in the pantry”). “Something Wild” arrives at a fresh take on an old truth (“You gotta let it grow where it lies”) and “Back On The Road” concludes with an exhilarating final shot: “There ain’t no life that’s better than this.” Despite the anxiety and existential questions that fueled it, Back To Cast Iron has the feel of first-day-of-summer optimism and possibility.
“I’m a natural optimist, and an energy exchange junkie,” says Struthers, with a laugh. “I love to be the wielder of energy, and the more energy the better. On stage, I enjoy rocking out. That’s what’s fun for me. I think the record reflects that, though it wasn’t intentional. It just happened because that’s what I love the most.”
Struthers was also bolstered by the unwavering energy exchange with her fans, via her Patreon account. “I promised them two songs a month,” she says. “That’s been really wonderful for me because it’s forced me to make time to write. Without having that community of people who are expecting new work, I don’t know if I would’ve blocked the time out.”
Connecting with fans and sharing music has been part of Nora Jane’s life since she was an adolescent. Born in Virginia and raised in New Jersey, she began attending festivals around the south with her banjo-playing father. After graduating from NYU with an education degree, she taught high school English 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 a move to Nashville, much woodshedding 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 luminaries like O’Brien, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, and released two critically-acclaimed albums. But it was in 2012, when Struthers formed the her band Party Line, that everything started to come into sharper focus. Rolling Stone Country called the four albums they made together “an evolved blend of roots and rock,” while Ann Powers of NPR Music said, “Struthers is guided by fire. She’s come up with some of the most quietly powerful narratives within the new wave of Americana artists.” Unfortunately, the group couldn’t weather the logistic challenges of the past few years.
“You can’t keep a band together if you can’t tour,” Struthers says. “But in an unexpected way, that, along with not having any particular thematic vision for these new songs, really freed me up from all of the usual constructs of making records. I went into the studio not even knowing what songs we were going to do. My only goal was, ‘I’m going to have the most amount of fun I possibly can in the next six hours with the child care that we’ve arranged.’ And that spirit infused everything.”
As on her past two albums, Struthers trusted producer Neilson Hubbard to lead the sessions. “He’s just kind of a wizard,” she says. “All the producers I’ve worked with have had their own unique mechanisms for creating magic. Nielsen’s got this thing where he will very rarely complete a full sentence that is him stating an opinion. He will do the first half of the sentence and then let the listener sort of fill in the blank. It lets people be complicit in creating the feedback that he’s giving them.”
Also central to the sound and soul is Struthers’ husband, multi-instrumentalist Joe Overton, who adds seamless vocal harmony, deep color on fiddle, steel and banjo, plus a guiding emotional hand. “I love him musically because he has such a unique voice on every single instrument that he plays,” Struthers says. “I think that is the sign of a real artist. There’s nothing easier for me in this world than singing with Joe. Our blend was there from the start. He’s also just the best person – very even-keeled and open-minded. That’s really expanded my ability to see versions of reality that are right or that are good. He makes everything wonderful.”
As Struthers looks forward to some festival dates this fall in support of Back To Cast Iron, for now she’s embracing the uncertainties of her balancing act. “My whole life and whole career, I have been a woman of vision, and that sort of stopped with this project,” she says. “At least for this stage of my life, this is how I want to make records going forward. I think it’s a great mode of operating. Seeking joy in all aspects and corners of my life and experiences – that’s where the good stuff is going to be living anyway. Letting go of the vision and seeking joy is where I’m at.”