Traverse City Record-Eagle

Arts & Entertainment

November 2, 2012

Blues performer Nora Jean Wallace in TC

TRAVERSE CITY — For singer and powerhouse performer Nora Jean Wallace, the blues aren't just about music.

The blues are a way of life — the one into which she was born on the Mississippi Delta.

"I do other music, like soul," she said. "But my main music is blues and gospel. That is the kind of music I really feel when I perform."

Nora Jean will be performing at Milliken Auditorium Nov. 3, bringing her love of blues and gospel along with her.

"I was brought up in it," she said.

The singer-songwriter was one of 16 children born to a sharecropper in Mississippi. From a young age, music was as big a part of her life as her family. Her father and uncle were blues performers and her grandmother owned a juke joint --- the inspiration for her song, "Down to Miss Mae's Juke Joint."

While "Juke Joint" looks back on one of the highlights of her childhood in the South, not all of her music draws on such happy inspiration. In fact, much of it, which she writes herself, pulls from the painful parts of life.

"(Blues) comes from hurt," she said, "when someone's been messing with your spirit and takes you for granted. Life is a song. When people misuse you and stab you in the back, that's a song."

But reliving all that pain through song is what gives the blues staying power.

"When you can put it on paper and sing it to the audience, a lot of people relate to me," she said. "They went through the same thing I done went through, that's what makes it good."

And the blues pack a loyal following.

"We have always had blues as a significant component of our concert season," said Eugene Jenneman, executive director of the Dennos Museum Center. "Blues audiences are very responsive to having performers come here.

"Blues and jazz, which are uniquely American, are the basis for so much of what has come to us and is a part of the contemporary music scene. It's good to go back and look at the musical forms from which everything else, in terms of American music, has been built. Blues is one of those important musical forms."

Named one of the 10 Great Women of Chicago Blues, Nora Jean is a school bus monitor by day.

"Even when I'm not on stage, I'm still singing to my students," she said. "They love me. I sing them a song; I break out a rap for them. I was brought up around a large family and people and children and cousins.

"My boss tells everybody, 'This is my best monitor.' The kids adore me, I know how to communicate with them."

Nora Jean has tried to go in other directions. She even left the business for a while and got a job in food service. But it didn't last long.

"I got fired because I was singing," she said. "Everything I do, I sing. I get fired, I get suspended because I sing.

"I met this guy back in 2003, his name was Mark, he was my husband, he said, 'You were meant to sing. That's why, when you do jobs and things, the boss gets rid of you. You're singing, you can't stop.'"

And so she started again, in 2003, taking the advice of longtime friend and fellow blues legend KoKo Taylor.

"Sometimes, you be feeling like giving up in it, try leaving it alone forever and it always ends up right back there, doing it again," Nora said. "(Taylor) said, 'Don't never give up, Nora ... If you give up, you'll be wondering what it would have been like if you stayed in it.'"

Nora Jean doesn't wonder anymore. When she performs now, she said, she "puts it to the Lord" and tries to give her fans what she can.

"I sing to make them happy," she said. "When I'm on that stage, I'm singing for my fans ... To see that smile on somebody's face — that my singing could make somebody happy, that's why I keep coming back."

Nora Jean will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, in Milliken Auditorium. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door or $22 for museum members; they can be purchased by calling 995-1553 or by visiting www.dennosmuseum.org.

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