The String: Nora Jane Struthers And The Mastersons, Live And In Love

Mar 18, 2020

Sometimes you hear people talk about bands as a marriage, which is to say, bound together with a promise and destined to weather stress at close quarters. It’s a good metaphor. But some bands truly are married, and this week The String features conversations with artists who are on that long journey together in life and music. They play live and they’re in love.

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In the case of Nora Jane Struthers, her other half was not on hand for this interview, but we talk about how she’s built her band the Party Line around her husband Joe Overton, who plays banjo, fiddle and steel guitar. And never has family been more on her mind. When I last caught up with Nora Jane it was for our “Nine Innings With…” feature in the fall of 2018 when we did a Q&A interview during a Nashville Sounds baseball game. That’s when we learned that after a long struggle with fertility, she was pregnant and that she and Joe were looking forward to a birth around Christmas. And that came to pass, but only after NJS had gone into Neilson Hubbard’s studio to record the album that became Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words.

“Every single time I make a record it feels like I have to double down,” she says in the interview. “You have to re-up and decide that I still believe that this is going to work. Or that I can make it work. When I was writing these songs, I was dreaming about being pregnant and I was imagining how is this going to change my life? I want it so much. But it’s also clear to me that my calling is to be a performer and a songwriter and to connect with people and help people connect with each other. And I didn’t want to have to sacrifice one dream for the other.”

Of course, this interview was taped before the Coronavirus upended nearly every tour in the nation for the Spring at least. Struthers is performing live and soliciting fan backers on her Patreon page.

Chris Masterson and Elanor Whitmore were touring musicians and independent songwriters when they met at a festival in 2006. Not long after becoming a couple they became integrated into Steve Earle’s touring band, where they remain key players today. In 2012, their first album as The Mastersons, Birds Fly South on New West Records, was lauded for its urbane Jayhawks vibe and for Elanor’s pretty and dramatic vocals.

They’ve recently issued their fourth album No Time For Love Songs, a lush and tuneful plea for artistic conscience and social vigilance in a troubled time. The couple had been working recently as studio musicians for LA-based Shooter Jennings on the big comeback Tanya Tucker album, and they recruited him to produce. Masterson is effusive in his praise for Jennings as a “no boundaries” musical mind. “I think he’s a young Leon Russell,” says Chris.

What I notice in the Mastersons’ songwriting is a freedom of line and a sense that while a rhyme or symmetry might work here or there, it’s more important to let lyrics flow like speech. There are surprising cadences and turns, and it pulls us farther into their humanistic vision. In the conversation, they talk about the osmotic effect of being close partners with one of the best songwriters of modern times.

“When you sit on a bus with Steve Earle, even if you’re not getting direct feedback, you’re learning, and the bar is high, when you think what he puts into his poetry,” Chris says. And Elanor follow up that, “I like to break the rules and I like quirky songwriters that will throw in a line that you’re not expecting. You have to be careful about it.”

The Mastersons also had a huge album release tour scrubbed, and you can support them by purchasing the new album or merch a the Compass Records Online Store.