Colorado holds a special place in Nora Jane Struthers’ life, specifically the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. While she grew up in New Jersey, Struthers developed a love for folk and bluegrass music, partly due to her banjo-playing dad. She picked up at the acoustic guitar at 14, and she and her dad would sing songs from bands like the Louvin Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. In college, Struthers attended the Telluride festival for just one day and was instantly inspired.
“I was totally enamored with the place, people and festival,” she says. “I have this really distinct memory of walking up to the stage when Tim O’Brien was playing the opening set of the festival. I remember turning around and looking at the crowd and looking at the mountains, and thinking, ‘Man, I want to do this.’”
Instead, Struthers went on to become an English teacher. But after a couple years, Struthers quit teaching and moved to Nashville to pursue her music. She later returned to the Telluride Festival and won the band competition in 2008.
“It made me feel like I was on the right path,” she says. “It really felt magical.”
Struthers is taking that path back to Colorado, playing a show at the Fox Theatre along with her band the Party Line and her newest album Wake. This new album symbolizes a lot of change for Struthers. Arguably the biggest change is Struthers saying goodbye to acoustic and hello to electric guitar. While her first two albums live in the bluegrass/folk space, Wake upped the rock ’n’ roll factor.
“My musical foundation is acoustic and American roots music,” she says. “But I was also growing up in the ’90s listening to my big sister’s music like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Radiohead, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco. My new record is a much more holistic portrait of my musical influences.”
You can see this new rock vibe come through in songs like “The Same Road” and “Let Go.” The bluegrass twang remains, but it’s now coupled by a strong electric guitar backbone, which blends nicely with Struthers’ melodic voice.
The desire to head in the rock direction also progressed as Struthers played more shows.
“I discovered I was really passionate about the music, but I’m also really passionate about creating an experience for the audience,” she says. “There’s something about the capacity for energy exchange that just gets heightened when you have electric instruments. … I wanted to have more intense energy with the crowd during the show.”
Along with her sound evolution came a new facet to her writing style. As she left a relationship, she fell deeper into a new one. Before, Struthers says, she had built her musical identity writing narrative songs about other people, and with Wake she shifted to more autobiographical lyrics.
You see this in the title of her album, which has a double meaning. In one way, she says, it alludes to a wake, as in a viewing of something that’s dead — the relationship that ended and the person who she was then — but it’s also awakening to this new relationship and person she was allowing herself to be. Through her relationship, she says, she learned to be more vulnerable and to decompartmentalize herself. She says she wanted to tell her own story and listen to all her influences.
“I spent a lot of my life as a teenager and a young adult making myself into a person I want to be. That sort of active creation of self — this is the first time I took a break from actively creating myself and just tried to look at what I had become,” she says. “And part of that was allowing pieces of myself that I was pushing down or boxing up to exist.
“That’s what also happened musically. Previously, I just wanted to use my acoustic and bluegrass roots to inform and create my original music. But with this record, I said, ‘I’m going to use all the influences I’ve ever had, and that is going to be more unique and special than if I’m trying to actively craft a sound.’”
As Struthers goes on to embrace all the new changes in her life, she says she feels like she’s heading in the right direction. In the future, Struthers wants to continue to let her sound evolve organically.
“This record was less cerebral than my previous albums and such a matter of the heart. I feel like my next album is going to be more of a blend between my mind and my heart,” she says. “I think maybe this was a stepping stone to get to that place and maybe that place is where I want to live longer.”
ON THE BILL: Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line, 8 p.m. Thursday, April 9, Fox Theatre, 1128 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095. Advanced tickets $10, at the door $12-14.