Thumbing through the bountiful supply of new releases, reviewers often look for clues which might promote a listen. On the back of Nora Jane’s CD was a whole list of clues: Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Dennis Crouch, Tim O’Brien, Jeff Taylor, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes, and producer Brent Truitt. When players of this caliber are involved, the CD is usually worthy of attention. As it turns out the singer and her songs are the main course, and the musicians are the gravy.
A former high school English teacher in Brooklyn, Struthers’ appreciation of both history and fiction flows out of her own songwriting. In the song “Greenbriar County,” a Telluride Troubadour finalist, she notices that the workers in the mines and the stone quarries both end up in the same pub after work. She paints for us a wonderful statement of harmony. In “He’s A Free Man,” she takes the voice of the oldest son who tries to make sense of why a father would leave his wife and family during hard times.
A love of nature reveals itself often. She sings of the chestnut blight during the early 20th century. This was the East’s most prevalent tree and it was gone in just a few years. “Thistle” offers us an insight to why she feels protected by wildflowers and tall grass. Usually environmentalists coax us into protecting habitat, but Nora Jane makes the same point by reversing the argument.
This whole album is solid and Brent Truitt has assembled a top notch cast which embellishes, but does not overpower. Fiddler Stuart Duncan, in particular, is smooth and reflective, as always, and really shines backing up original material. Struthers doesn’t wish to be categorized, so we won’t try. Duke Ellington once said that there are only two types of music, good and bad. Nora Jane’s debut is really, really good.