Release date: November 15, 2020
By Robin Zimmerman
Photo: Donna Grass
After a long hiatus from recording, Nora Jean Wallace is back in action with some hot tracks packaged up in a succinctly titled CD called Blueswoman. While it might seem a bit bodacious to brand your music in such a forthright manner, Wallace has the pipes, presence and personal experiences to back up her Blueswoman credentials.
Music has infused every aspect of Wallace’s life dating back to when she was coming up in Mississippi. Her dad worked as a sharecropper on a farm near Greenwood and moonlighted as a professional blues musician. Meanwhile, Wallace’s mother served up the sweet sound of spirituals by singing gospel standards to Wallace and her fifteen brothers and sisters.
If that’s not enough Magnolia-state based blues cred, Wallace’s grandmother ran a lively little juke joint. Here, Nora Jean’s dad, Bobby Lee Wallace and Uncle Henry “Son” Wallace would belt out the blues while Wallace and her many siblings secretly soaked it all in from various vantage points.
With that kind of DNA, it’s not surprising to hear that Wallace was covering Howlin’ Wolf at age five, winning high school talent contests and making the move to the Windy City. It was in the bicentennial year of 1976 that her red-hot brand of blues came to the attention of the Chicago music community.
After singing with the likes of Scottie and the Oasis and being mentored by Mary Lane, Joe Barr and others, Wallace’s big break came in 1985 when she signed on with Jimmy Dawkins after he heard her singing at a Chicago club. The then Nora Jean Bruso toured and recorded with Dawkins for seven years and developed an international fan base thanks to passionate performances at festivals all over the globe.
Wallace’s rise through the blues world culminated with her 2004 BMA nomination for Going Back to Mississippi. But, when her mom took ill in her native Mississippi, Nora Jean headed back south to care for her.
While her mom has since passed, Wallace feels her spirit in her music and her newly-renewed mission to sing the blues. Although she’s been out of the business for a while, Wallace hasn’t lost a beat when it comes to busting out old and new blues standards.
On Blueswoman, Wallace’s music is also infused with the spirit of blues pioneers like Koko Taylor, who once famously told Wallace that she sounded just like her at the same age. The CD’s title track,” Blueswoman” is an homage to Taylor complete with the powerhouse vocals that the “Queen of the Blues” was known for.
While Wallace certainly is a tour de force on this Severn Records release, she is well-supported by a stellar cast of musicians including label head, David Earl, who also plays guitar on four tracks. They’re joined by veteran Severn session players including guitarist Johnny Moeller, Steve Gomes on bass, organist Kevin Anker, harpist Steve Guyger, Stanley Banks on keyboards and Robb Stupka on drums. Multi-blues award winner Kim Wilson contributes his always-inspired harp work on “Rag and Bucket.”
“Rag and Bucket” was penned by Stanley Banks who lent his lyrical talents to three other tracks on the CD including the opening number, “Martell.” This intoxicating tune features a full round of alcohol-fueled references enhanced by Wallace’s delivery that includes a Koko-style shout-out to the bartender. This pairs nicely with Moeller’s opening riffs and solid harp work by Guyger.
Wallace segues into a Syl Johnson number on the second track. On “I Can’t Stop” she goes from good time party girl to an unstoppable, soulful songstress who puts her own spin on Johnson’s classic.
Wallace knocks it out of the park on the next number, “I’m a Blues Woman.” On this Banks-penned salute to the “Queen of the Blues,” Wallace’s big voice conjures up visions of a blues woman bringing down the house at a steamy juke joint in the Mississippi Delta. She doesn’t let up on the next track either. When it comes to laying out the “Evidence,” she unloads with just the right touch of a woman wronged persona.
In addition to her powerful vocal performances, Wallace shows that she’s no slouch as a songwriter. She takes a plaintive turn on “Victim” before saying good riddance to a “no good” man in “Look Over Yonder” and giving another guy a wicked tongue lashing in “I’ve Been Watching You.” She also sashays and sings away on her own “Dance with Me” composition.
Blueswoman concludes with another Stanley Banks number called “I Don’t Have to Beg You to Love Me.” On this track and throughout the course of the CD, the steady rolling Severn session players are more than up to the task of keeping up with this dynamic blues woman.
Wallace’s life has been characterized by career highs and life-changing lows, but her experiences have added an extra element of pain, pathos and personal connection to her performances. This is evident on all ten tracks of Bluewoman, which hopefully is the first of many more releases from this Mississippi-bred, Midwest-based songstress. While 2020 has certainly had its share of lows, the blues world has high hopes for a Nora Jean Wallace resurgence in 2021 and beyond.