June 07--The Americana Music Association's weekly radio airplay chart is full of familiar acts -- Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin with Edie Brickell and Jason Isbell fill the top five spots.
But moving up the chart is a new group, relatively unknown, though with band members familiar to many in the valleys.
Nora Jane Struthers and The Party Line's debut CD, "Carnival," was No. 7 this week, having jumped two spots in each of two consecutive weeks after entering the chart at No. 17. While it is the band's debut, it is Struthers' third record and most successful to date.
Struthers, an English teacher-turned-traveling singer/songwriter, is recording and touring with a couple of Salem natives -- multi-instrumentalist P.J. George and drummer Drew Lawhorn. They are having a great time on the road, supporting "Carnival" as the record's profile rises. They will hit Kirk Avenue Music Hall on Saturday.
When we spoke with Struthers by phone on May 21, she was still celebrating its No. 11 spot.
"It's doing so well," Struthers said. "I was so surprised. Last week ... we had broken into the top 20, which is really exciting, and I totally expected it to start slacking off from there. And this week we jumped to No. 11. So I was like, 'Whaaaat?' This is awesome."
The Galax connection
Making the record and touring with George makes the experience even better.
The two have been in a relationship for several years. They met when Struthers, a New Jersey native, came to the Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax. The couple moved to Nashville, Tenn., and soon after were touring and recording with the bluegrass band Bearfoot before pursuing their own project.
"We've been playing music together for five years now," she said. "But this one is the most exciting, I think."
Struthers, 29, taught English at a Brooklyn, N.Y., charter school. But trips to Galax and the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention got her into the idea that she could make a living playing the musical styles she had grown up playing and singing with her father, an amateur banjo and guitar man.
"So I gave my notice at my school, packed up my Honda Odyssey minivan and drove to Nashville, which is like so cliche I can hardly handle it," Struthers said.
George, though, has been a musical lifer, graduating from Radford University in 2009 with a music education degree. Valley audiences saw and heard him, mostly on bass or drums, with a variety of acts, including the Pace Brothers and Jordan Harman Band. With the latter, Lawhorn played drums.
The band, rounded out with clawhammer banjo man Joe Overton and fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis, has been on the road a lot, playing in Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Georgia, the Carolinas and much of the Northeast. Later this year, the act will head to the West Coast and the Rockies. It is on the bill for Bristol Rhythm and Roots, scheduled for Sept. 20-22.
The new record's success so far has been "amazing and sort of surreal," George, 31, wrote in an e-mail.
"We've also gotten some love from NPR which I think is as helpful as anything to help build new fans," he wrote. "We're also getting great responses from fans on Facebook, sharing their enthusiasm about the record or their favorite songs with us and with their Facebook friends."
The timing of it all couldn't have been better for Lawhorn, 23. He was working for Verizon Wireless Cellular Sales, making good money but unhappy, dissatisfied and unfulfilled, he wrote in an e-mail. So he moved to Nashville in March 2012 and was soon reunited with George, recording "Carnival," then touring.
"I'm honored to bring my music back to where it all started, and the place that I still call home," Lawhorn wrote. "I'm very proud of this band and this music, and I'm super excited to get to share it with my closest friends and family."
A chronological story
On "Carnival," George plays electric and upright bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion, pedal steel guitar and hambone percussion.
"So he's all over the record," Struthers said.
So is she. Her steely, often haunting voice is a great fit for the album's 14 tracks, all of which Struthers wrote. "Carnival" is a cycle of story songs set in the rural South between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s. It works chronologically, from the perspective of a little girl, a teenage girl, a woman, an elderly woman -- even from beyond the grave.
"Some of them are more developed narratives, and some of them are just like little windows into an everyday experience," she said. "The song 'Barn Dance,' I imagined just as like a little window into a teenage girl's mind. And the song 'Mountain Child' is a more developed narrative with a more complex story line."
For Struthers, George and the Party Line, the story line is just beginning.
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