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Benton Evening News - Benton, IL
  • Brian Mackey: Nora Jane Struthers blazes her own path to success

  • She attended New York University, earned a degree in education and taught for three years. But she was also keeping music in her life, traveling with her dad to the Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Virginia and the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina.

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  • Nora Jane Struthers is not one of those people who were destined to be a musician.
    “I grew up in this suburb in New York City where it was a very college- and corporate-focused environment,” Struthers said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t know any professional musicians or professional artists when I was growing up. So it didn’t really seem like a real career path to me.”
    She attended New York University, earned a degree in education and taught for three years. But she was also keeping music in her life, traveling with her dad to the Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Virginia and the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina.
    “Through those communities, I met the first professional musicians I’d ever met in my life, and I began to see that as a real possibility as a profession,” Struthers said. “Once that sunk in — that if I really went for it, maybe I could be a musician — then I figured I better do it now.”
    A singer and guitar player, Struthers’ band is called the Bootleggers, which includes bass, fiddle and mandolin. Nora Jane Struthers & the Bootleggers won the band competition at the 2010 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. You may have heard of some of the past winners of that contest — groups such as Nickel Creek and the Dixie Chicks.
    Struthers, 28, is a former high school English teacher. In some ways, the transition from teaching to being a musician was a natural one. After all, keeping kids focused on the subject requires a performance of a sort.
    “When you’re in front of a class, you’re on stage,” Struthers said.
    And she was teaching British literature — Austen, Bronte, Shakespeare — authors whose universal themes, she said, have worked their way into her writing.
    “One of my goals as a songwriter is to have those themes be present and have that universality, but make it accessible,” she said.
    Struthers grew up listening to a broad range of music. Her biggest youthful influence, she said, was in her family: “I have a sister who’s older than me, and so whatever she was listening to, I thought was really awesome.”
    She loves Radiohead and Pearl Jam and ’90s grunge in general, but also folk-ish female singers, such as Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. But Struthers doesn’t concern herself with labels and classifications.
    “I just make the music that I make, and it’s up to each individual person to decide what to call it,” she said. “Some people listen to my music and they’re not familiar with bluegrass, so then they think my music is bluegrass.
    “But if you are a die-hard traditionalist, there’s no way you’re going to think my music is bluegrass because I don’t even have a banjo player in the band,” she said.
    Page 2 of 2 - “You can definitely hear the influence of bluegrass and old-time and Western swing and folk and old country — you can hear all that stuff in my sound if you’re familiar with it. But if you don’t listen to old folk or old country, you’re not going to hear that. It’s all based on where people are coming from.”
    A few years ago, like a lot of people looking for Americana music stardom, Struthers moved to Nashville, Tenn. She either wanted to meet up with a good group of musicians and form a band or make an album.
    The people didn’t materialize, so Struthers took matters into her own hands.
    “I was like, OK, I have to start bringing my New York sense of time to Nashville,” she said, “which doesn’t actually work that well, although I think it gives me a slight edge.”
    It’s helpful to remember that Nashville is, strictly speaking, in the South. It has a slower idea of time. But in her first three months in the city, Struthers wrote almost all the songs that are on her self-titled debut album, released last year. She found great managers, and they pitched it to what she called the “appropriate-sounding record labels.”
    The story was the same: She was too new, too un-established.
    “The line that I heard over and over was that a record label can’t break an artist these days, an artist has to break themselves,” Struthers said.
    She could have kept trying, but she thought, “Enough already. I need to get moving.”
    It was that New York sense of time coming into play again. Struthers decided to release the album herself.
    “In the end, with hindsight, I think that was absolutely the best thing that I could have done,” she said. “I’m really happy to have it be entirely in my control. It just makes things so much easier.”
    Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.
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