Long Ago, Far Away and Right Now
By David McGee

nora-struthers-cdNORA JANE STRUTHERS
Nora Jane Struthers
Blue Pig Music

Before she was who she is today, Nora Jane Struthers was an English lit teacher in Brooklyn. Now she’s one of the most impressive new roots artists of the year, a singer and songwriter whose carefully crafted, literate tales are born of the soil, strife and little joys of a life beholden to traditional values, before that term took on an unfortunate political tint. Politics is not Ms. Struthers’s concern. How people live, what they gain, what they lose as the years roll on, how they respond to the ebb and flow of their days—and most certainly their attachment to the earth under their feet—is where she comes in on this, her first album.

nora-struthers-3Consider her song “The Blight.” A sturdy waltz, it begins with a warm reminiscence of a lush forest she frolicked in as a youth, when she could gather up burrs off the ground, sell them for 25 cents a pound in town and come away with money enough to buy new shoes. In another verse she sings as a young man remembering his trips to the forest, axe in hand, before disease and logging took their toll on the trees. Finally, the forest is completely destroyed when a road is built through it. Each verse is interspersed with a keening chorus, in which Struthers’s tears are near palpable as she cries, “Now am I old, my hair has gone grey/the trees are all gone, they’ve hauled them away/life will never be the same,” as Tim O’Brien adds a solemn, mournful harmony vocal behind her, his voice and Stuart Duncan’s striking, dramatic fiddling being the key added components driving the narrative to its heart rending conclusion. Being not merely a songwriter but a storyteller, Ms. Struthers demonstrates an affinity for the pointed flashback and its hold on her memory. “The Blight” is an example of an especially painful reflection, wherein the land that shaped the young lives of her protagonists has literally been savaged and obliterated in the name of progress. Arguably the most affecting song on the album, the Celtic-rooted “Thistle,” its gentle, lilting arrangement made doubly evocative by producer Brent Truitt’s delicate mandolin chording and, again, fiddler Stuart Duncan’s dramatic counterpoints to the singer’s plaintive pleas, concerns a young girl resisting an arranged marriage “when there’s no one that I love,” while vowing to find her true love within a year’s time. “Until then let me stay at home,” she sings earnestly in a chorus articulated in the poetry of another time and place, “where the purple and silver thistle grow/let me lay my head in sweet repose/where the tall grass will hide me from all of the worlds/like when I was a little girl…” At the end she’s found her man, and expresses a desire, in her sunset years, to be buried where as a youth she dreamed, “where the purple and silver thistle grow…” It’s a beautiful performance, heartfelt and rich in emotional touchstones, Struthers’s voice soaring in the chorus, rising up from the certitude of her determined vows in the verses (you can hear a bit of Patty Loveless in her mountain cry), and Duncan responding to the narrative flow by discreetly laying back until he’s needed to add emphatic, rustic flourishes between verses and choruses.

Nora Jane Struthers, ‘Willie,’ the first song on the artist’s debut album: bringing the powerful parade home with poetry and passion.

Struthers’s world may seem long ago and far away, as her language would indicate, but the issues animating some of her songs are timely as can be. Both “Look Out On the Mountain” and “He’s a Free Man” center on absent fathers, but from strikingly different perspectives. In the former, a dark, brooding ballad more droned than sung and flecked throughout with Truitt’s atmospheric mandolin, a mother tries to comfort her daughter after the man of the house has gone to town, leaving the mother to offer her offspring weak assurances of dad’s sobriety while in the stunning closing verse she contemplates suicide as a viable alternative to being left alone. In the latter song, more upbeat in feel and tempo though still reflective, Ms. Strothers again assumes the voice of a male character, the oldest boy in a sharecropping family whose father, pushed to the breaking point by hard times, simply took off, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. Number one son, though, takes up the mantle of responsibility, joins in prayer for dad’s safe return every night, so his siblings won’t feel “like their daddy didn’t love them,” while admitting, “I doubt we’ll see his face again.” Refusing to let this misfortune bring down the family, the son completes his education (“four years of school and done/crops withered in the sun”), enlists in the Army despite being underage, and sends his paychecks back to the siblings as “proof that I’m still with you/and I’ll never leave like that.” In an interesting bit of sequencing from the standpoint of storyline, “He’s a Free Man” immediately follows the ebullient backwoods toe-tapper, “One Notch Tighter,” concerning a fellow aiming to become entirely self-sufficient and self-sustaining (“pull your belt one notch tighter/add some water to the soup”) until the worst blows over—the polar opposite of the cut-and-run patriarch of “He’s a Free Man.”

So this world Nora Jane Struthers has built on her laudable debut, evoked in the words and syntax of another age, and in music resonating with the spirit of life in the hills, valleys and hollows of Appalachia, speaks, often defiantly, to our own time. The lament for those bucolic days lolling about in the forest remembered so poignantly in “The Blight” might well be the sentiments of the people in southern West Virginia as they watch the tops of the Appalachian Mountains being blasted away; and almost every day’s news brings another story about the desperate measures taken by men and women jobless, penniless and at wit’s end but resolved to fight through the worst together. In its own tidy, stealthy way, Nora Jane Struthers brings the powerful parade home with poetry and passion. This is who we are.

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024