Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line practically ooze Americana, with banjos, beards and vintage dresses to spare.
But spend some time with the 14 songs on their new album, Carnival, released Tuesday, and you'll quickly discover what separates them from the rest of the roots-inspired crowd: Rich storytelling, repeat-worthy melodies and a modern mashup of traditional, bluegrass, folk, country and rock influences.
Struthers' sweet, earnest vocals trace a range of emotions, from a mother's playful advice on choosing a husband on The Baker's Boy to opposite sides of sorrow on Two Women, told from the viewpoints of a female slave and the slave owner's wife.
The songs on Carnival work on two levels. Each tells a story from a female perspective, and they are loosely arranged so that the age of the narrator progresses from a girl to a teen, to a woman, to an old woman and, finally, to a woman looking back from beyond the grave. The closing track Travelin' On encapsulates the entire cycle, neatly tying up a concept that patiently unwinds with each listen.
On Carnival, Struthers continues to explore the theme of rural American life, historic and modern, in the intelligent, accessible style she displayed on her self-titled 2010 debut.
"She said, 'Though it may seem harmless, a game of cards can lead / To greed and lust and whiskey, even infidelity,' " she sings in the mischievous Jack of Diamonds, inspired by a tale from her grandmother's life about a deck of playing cards. You can almost hear Struthers wink as she belts out the final lines: "She made me swear to never hold the Devil's deck again / But I've still got the Jack of Diamonds underneath my bed."
1943 is the most restrained song on the album and perhaps the most beautiful, as Struthers and P.J. George harmonize over guitar and mandolin about an old man's wife living on in his memories.
The production by Brent Truitt (Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss) shines on songs like Bike Ride, co-written by Struthers and Nashville singer/songwriter Robby Hecht. Other standouts include Listen With Your Heart, which tells the story of a young girl learning to live off the land after losing both parents, and the foot-stomping Barn Dance.
Talented multi-instrumentalists George, Aaron Jonah Lewis, Joe Overton and Drew Lawhorn make up the touring band Party Line, named after a tune on the album about the early days of rural telephone systems. They bring the songs and stories on Carnival to life with fiddle, bass, banjo, drums and an array of other instruments.
The album never fades through 14 tracks, a testament to the songwriting and musical arrangements.