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Nora Jane Struthers Is Hard-Headed About Being Open-Hearted On 'Champion'


This is FRESH AIR. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers has a new album called "Champion." Rock critic Ken Tucker says the collection is her most personal and accessible to date.


NORA JANE STRUTHERS: (Singing) There's a light on in your hallway. Kettle's screaming on the stove, dogs barking at the backdoor, bathroom tiles are black with mold. The babies are sleeping. And you're dreaming you're 16, back when life was books and horses and daddy's fiddle on TV. I will be your champion. Fly your banner in the sun.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Nora Jane Struthers has one of those strong, clear voices that cuts across the grain of a melody with a bracing sharpness. She started out as a kid bluegrass musician in a duo with her father. Her 2015 album called "Wake" featured songs at the intersection of folk, country and rock. The music on her new album "Champion" tends to be a bit louder - less acoustic, more electric. I guess it falls under the catch-all term Americana. But I think the songs are nervier, thornier than most of the Americana I forced myself to listen to. "Champion" is a more concerted collaboration with her band, The Party Line. Part of that increase in collaboration may have to do with the fact that between her previous album and this new one, she married the band's guitarist - a development that figures in some of the best songs here.


STRUTHERS: (Singing) Laying in bed, listen to the sound of you in the kitchen turning beans into crown's cream walls, curdling the morning sun. Thought I was awaking to a world in white. Something about the kind covering up that light tells me spring has come. Winter's warm and summer's snow wrapped up in this lovers glow. Time is still a pass right through. Each season comes down to you.

TUCKER: Among other things, "Champion" is one of the most beautiful albums about the joys of marriage or long-term commitment that I've heard in a long time. The song "Each Season," for example, ticks off a succession of small pleasures to be experienced as a couple grows older together. And another tune called "Let's Get The Day Started Right" is about - well, let me put it this way. It's better than the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" as a song about a time-specific conjugal assignation.


STRUTHERS: (Singing) Let's get the day started right. Let's take our time. Let's get the day started right. I want to feel your body next to mine. Pull down the shades. Pull back the covers. Oh, I need you, babe. Don't want no other. Let's get the day started. Let's get the day started right.

TUCKER: In a statement on her website, Nora Jane Struthers gets very specific about the inspiration for some of the music on "Champion." She says that she and husband Joe Overton have been trying to have kids. But she describes her fertility problems and her outreach to women in similar circumstances as a source of increased medical knowledge, advice and mutual comfort. She cites the song "Belief" as being one especially inspired by the situation she describes. It's a measure of how good the song is that I wouldn't have been aware of its specific inspiration. It's primarily a sturdy piece of music featuring a guitar line that reminded me of David Lindley's work with Jackson Browne circa "The Pretender."


STRUTHERS: (Singing) Oh, there's a line between hope and belief. You've got to choose a side with your heart, with your mind. It's inside. You can feel it. It's been there since the day you were born. It's up to you to heal it, heal yourself the way you're torn. Oh, there's a line between hope and belief. You've got to choose a side with your heat, with your mind.

TUCKER: You come away from "Champion's" 13 selections with an overall sense of commitment, commitment to the relationship she's writing about and commitment to making the music sound as precise and particular as she wants it to be. Nora Jane Struthers is hard-headed about being open-hearted.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Nora Jane Struthers' album "Champion." After we take a short break, Justin Chang reviews the new horror film "The Killing Of A Sacred Deer." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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