Preview Champion by Nora Jane Struthers.
Champion by Nora Jane Struthers
On Champion, Nora Jane Struthers transforms emotion into art, melding country twang and harder-edged rock sounds into a memorable set of tunes about love, longing and persevering through life’s challenges.
Struthers is not a newcomer; this is her fourth album. She has won acclaim for her songwriting and this outing continues her high-level artistry. But it does represent a change, incorporating more of a rock sound into her work. It’s still got plenty of banjo, fiddle and steel guitar, but the electric guitar has a cutting distorted tone and there is a tightly coiled energy to the tunes.
In interviews, Struthers has said that the songs on the album were inspired by her “personal fertility quest” and the experiences of her childhood friends becoming mothers. But the songs transcend that inspiration, capturing a web of emotions—from love and longing to anger, frustration and determination—that are universal.
The title track, which has a driving and urgent quality, is a pledge of solidarity with people facing challenges, summed up in the chorus: “I will be your champion / fly your banner in the sun.” On the penultimate chorus, Struthers reverses the lyric into a plea for support for herself (“Will you be my champion”), underscoring the point that each of us needs the support of others to make it through life.
Love occupies a central role throughout the album as in “Each Season,” which opens the album. Well-chosen details and novel turns of phrase evoke an image of a committed relationship.
Laying in bed, listening to the sounds
Of you in the kitchen, turning beans into grounds
Cream walls, curdle in the morning sun.
One of the more traditional-sounding arrangements on the album appears on the tune “Let’s Get The Day Started Right.” It’s got that classic Nashville sound with weeping steel guitar and straight-ahead beat. The lyrics, however, are an invitation to start the day by staying in bed to … well, you know, get the day started right. The song’s outro playfully flips the beat into a stripper’s tease before fading away.
The album plumbs heartache and trouble, too. The downtempo “Grit” is an ode to the necessity of determination. The music mirrors the mood with growling, distorted guitar and fiddle and a plodding, martial drum beat. It’s a bleak, relentless sound that recalls Neil Young as the song builds to a crescendo. “Belief” covers similar terrain but in a sunnier, more tuneful key. In a way, it feels like the heart of the album with its call to dig in and carry on. By contrast, “Grass” is a vow to relax and let nature take its course.
Think I’m going to wait for last year’s seeds to volunteer
Watch the berries grow ripe and let the rabbits eat their fill
All life’s going to carve out a way, irregardless of my will
On every tune, the band is locked in. Drummer Drew Lawhorn propels the music with creative breaks that manage to be subtle rather than showy while bassist Brian Duncan Miller provides a steady foundation. Guitarist Josh Vana and multi-instrumentalist Joe Overton (fiddle, banjo and steel guitar) key off each other to fill in all the right places. Overton, who married Struthers in the past year or so, also sings harmony and their voices fit together perfectly.
This is music that rests on a solid foundation of country rock, but it is not weighed down by its traditions. When it suits the song, the band strips the music down to a spare arrangement of guitar and harmonica as on “Show Me” or punks the music up into a squall of distortion for a critique of the alienating aspects of technology in “Robot.” Every tune takes a strong stand.
Struthers closes the album with “Wonderful Home,” a jaunty tune that pulls out all the stops with Cajun fiddle reels, banjo rolls and electric guitar fills. She has said that the song was a response to a close friend who lost a child to premature birth.
If I was born to this world again, just a babe in mother’s arms
I would count myself so lucky to be held by you.
Struthers goes on to imagine herself as all sorts of increasingly unlikely forms of existence—a bird in a tree, a guitar on the wall or some second-hand belongings—each of which is fortunate to find her way to the friend’s home. You would have to be a cold person not to be touched by the love and generous spirit of the song. It’s one final highlight in an album filled with them.