Two years after giving up teaching for a career as a proud-to-be Made-in-Americana singer-songwriter, 26-year-old Nora Jane Struthers found herself on the main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2010.
Along with her band the Bootleggers, Struthers then followed the formidable footsteps of bands such as the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek by winning the prestigious Telluride band contest. That victory earned them a return visit to the same stage in 2011, making Nora Jane a household name -- that others besides Struthers would recognize.
Further driving the point home, her self-titled album that includes 11 songs she wrote was released two days later.
"Winning that competition has been such a boon," she's says over the phone last week from her home in Nashville, just finishing her first cup of coffee. "And all the name recognition that you get from being associated with the festival has been really helpful."
So what's in a name, Nora Jane?
"My parents (Alan and Jeanna Struthers) were educated hippies; they named me Nora after Nora Charles (wife of Nick, Dashiell Hammett's dashing character from The Thin Man that went on to TV and film fame) and they named me Jane after (English author) Jane Austen. ... I grew up with my parents calling me Jane, but starting in kindergarten, when they took roll, they called me Nora (in school)."
Born in Virginia but raised in New Jersey, Nora Jane Struthers began traveling south with her banjo-playing dad. At various times they performed as a duo, then started attending fiddlers' conventions in Virginia and North Carolina. Down South, her dad introduced her as Jane. Up North, where she went to college, then began teaching English in New York, she was known as Nora. The name game continued - in what Struthers calls "this weird Mason-Dixon line thing" -- until she packed up and left for Nashville in fall 2008.
From that point, to avoid any further confusion, Nora Jane decided to make more than one name for herself.
Together, the names seem as vintage as the dresses of the 1940s and '50s she wears onstage and as authentic as the voice she brings to tunes such as "Cowgirl Yodel #3" and "The Blight," two of the best off her debut record.
Unlike many young artists, it didn't take long for Struthers to get that album made. And almost just as fast, the roots music community took notice.
After living only three months in Nashville, Struthers had written an album's worth of songs, then found producer Brent Truitt, whom she credits for assembling her "A-Team" of musicians to bring into the studio. They included Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, all of whom will be performing in Telluride this week. She never expected it to happen so fast, yet ...
"I really brought sort of a New York sense of time to Nashville," said Struthers, who earned a graduate degree at NYU in educational leadership and left behind a job as an English department head at a charter school in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. The fast track to becoming a school administrator wasn't going to make her happy, she figured.
So she tried to make an immediate impression in the Music City.
"Part of my adjusting to Southern culture is realizing that you can't rush," she says now. "But I think that my sort of go-getter attitude has really helped me to slingshot my career. At times, it seemed like I haven't been moving at all. Now that I look back, I'm pretty amazed to have gotten to the point that I've gotten to in only a couple of years. Now my sense of time has settled down into more of a Nashville (laughs) ... it's just a lot more laid back down here, really. But at first, I was definitely trying to move things along."
While she says Dad has been most instrumental in influencing her musically, Struthers points to an episode in Telluride -- before she was even performing on a regular basis -- that caused a sea change.
Attending the festival with a friend several years ago, Struthers was there only for opening day to see O'Brien, who "was and is my hero." Making her way to the front of the stage, she turned around for a moment, looking out at the crowd and the mountains. "Man, this is what I want to do. This is awesome," she remembers saying to herself.
For someone with brains, beauty and blond ambition, getting here from there seemed like a natural progression. Determined to be heard, she twice entered the troubadour competition for singer-songwriters -- and also became a top 10 finalist in 2010.
From left, Nora Jane Struthers and the Bootleggers:
Ward Stout, Dave Goldenberg and P. J. George.
But Struthers felt more relaxed surrounded by supporting players, saying, "I wasn't nervous about that at all. We just got up there and did what we do ... like we always do. It's definitely exhilarating to do the final round of the competition on the Telluride main stage because it's such a beautiful view and there's so many people and it's just a big rush, for sure. It was surreal to hear them call us as the winner. It's a fine memory I'm going to hold onto."
All it took to make that happen was surviving a rigorous "audition" process, getting selected from more than 500 entries, then making it through the preliminary round in Elks Park while getting judged on the following criteria: 30 percent material selection; 30 percent instrumental performance; 30 percent vocal performance; and 10 percent stage presence.
Now she's back for the four-day weekend ("we're just going to camp out -- not literally," she says, laughing) and will play on the main stage for the 38th annual festival at 11:15 a.m. Saturday, completely uninhibited because no one will be critiquing their performance. "I'm looking at it really as a vacation," she says enthusiastically, making the visit to Telluride seem nothing more than a walk in Town Park. "That doesn't feel like work at all."
Joining Struthers with be fiddler Ward Stout, one of the first friends she made in the South. He sat in during her first gig at Family Wash, a restaurant-bar in East Nashville. That was the genesis of the Bootleggers, who were later joined by P.J. George (bass) and Dave Goldenberg (mandolin).
Struthers and George will perform as a duo during a series of Colorado dates shortly after Telluride, including house concerts in Pine and Nederland. Then the two will start focusing on their new roles in Bearfoot, another previous Telluride band contest-winning act.
With an album scheduled for a fall release followed by extensive touring, there's likely to be more Bearfoot and less Bootleggers heading into 2012. But Struthers will always be around.
Because as long as she keeps raising the bar in Nashville, Nora Jane will make sure everyone knows her names.
MORE FACE TIME WITH NORA JANE STRUTHERS
Struthers offers thoughts about herself, the festival-going experience in general and Telluride in particular:
1. Best festival experience (duh)
"I think the best would be winning the band competition at Telluride, for sure. That's easy."
2. Worst festival experience
"I don't know that I've really had any bad festival experiences yet. I'm pretty new on the scene. I guess a bad festival experience would also be at Telluride (last year), where I put suntan lotion all over my body but forgot my neck. My neck got totally fried. No fun. I've got a brand new big sunhat that I'm bringing this year."
3. Who are you looking forward to seeing at Telluride?
"Oooh, the whole lineup is really amazing. I'm always excited to see Tim O'Brien in any capacity. I'm pretty excited to see Mumford & Sons, I've never seen them. I'm excited to see Robert Plant and Band of Joy."
4. Who's on your wish list of collaborators?
"I would love to collaborate with Darrell Scott. He's one of my songwriting heroes and he's just so good. Never met him, maybe I'll meet him this year. I've seen him around (Nashville) before, but never met him."
5. What are the challenges of singing/performing at 8,750 feet?
"Well, I just get winded a lot more easily. So for me getting there a few days before we actually have to perform is pretty much essential. We'll have a solid three, four days before we get on stage. So that will really help. ... And sunscreen." (laughs)
6. Favorite cover to perform (and why)?
"A lot of the songs that I do are traditional, so I really enjoy performing the 'Beaumont Rag,' which is ... I learned it from (listening to) Doc Watson. I think it's a traditional tune. But I also have been performing a Red Foley tune called 'Tennessee Saturday Night.' "
7. What can you tell us about yourself that most people don't know?
"I'm a pretty bad speller because I'm dyslexic. So that's interesting that I was an English teacher. And I think that has a lot to do with why I'm really an aural learner. I hear a song once or twice and I can remember most of the words. That's why I learn by ear. I can't really read music very well."
Publicity photos courtesy of Nora Jane Struthers
Nora Jane Struthers solo photo by Scott Simontacchi.
The "Faces of Telluride" series leading up to the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival also included Part 1 on banjo player Abigail Washburn and Part 2 on Trampled by Turtles singer-songwriter Dave Simonett.