“Music is medicine to people,” says Nora Jean Wallace, one of four blues artists appearing at my Call and Response blues seminar at King Biscuit Blues Festival on Saturday, October 8th.
An old school blues shouter, Nora told me years ago that Koko Taylor’s advice to her was to “always sing the real blues, Nora. People’s hungry for it. I don’t care how tired you are, how frustrated you are, always have time for your fans. Your fans are the ones that make you. If you get in good with your fans and show them your love and let them know they’re part of your life, I don’t care where you’re playing, the place is gonna be packed.’
Twenty-five years later, Nora’s following her friend Koko Taylor’s advice. “God gave us music. When you go to church, the preacher’s teaching you the word of God, you fill up on that. Music is medicine to people. My songs always about love because there ain’t nothing in the world stronger than love. Nothing! But when I mention to people I love you, we got a good thing going on. You’re a good man, a good woman, you know, people listen to that kind of stuff.”
Nora’s 2020 BluesWoman album on Severn Records is a must have for any serious blues fan. And her show at this year’s King Biscuit promises to be a barn burner. Born in 1956 and raised in Greenwood, Mississippi, Robert Johnson’s hometown, she is the seventh of 16 children. “They say the seventh child is supposed to have good luck. I know God has blessed me.”
Her father, Bobby Lee Wallace, was a professional blues singer and sharecropper. Her uncle, Henry “Son” Wallace, was a blues singer, guitar player, and sharecropper. Her mother, Ida Lee Wallace, was a gospel singer; and her grandmother, Mary, ran a juke house.
Nora was singing at age six and picking cotton at 12. “My mama always wanted me to be a Christian singer,” she told me in 2007. “She always told me to sing gospel, and my daddy said, ‘Just let her sing.’ He always told me I sing too hard. He used to tell me, ‘You have a beautiful voice, Nora. Just relax.’ But I can’t. This is me! He says, ‘You sing too hard, girl.’ But I can’t. This is how I sing, you know? This is how I sing. I can get into a full song and start to sweat like somebody poured water on me, but that’s how I work.”
When she was 17, she took the grand prize at her high school talent show. “I knew I always could sing, and people always told me I could sing. Even when I was out in the cotton fields I used to sing, and people used to look at me and laugh. ‘Girl, you can sing.’ But I never thought of making no career or nothing out of it.”
It hasn’t been easy. She toured and recorded with Jimmy Dawkins for seven years starting in 1985, the year her dad died of a stroke and her brother was killed. She took off years to take care of her mother who died in 2017, the same year she last played the Biscuit.
Nora currently drives a school bus in Chicago and does four or five gigs a month at Kingston Mines, the late-night hang for blues musicians looking for action at 2 in the morning when the other clubs in the Windy City shut down. Larry McCray, Thornetta Davis, and Billy Branch each have sat in with her recently, and all of them are playing this year’s King Biscuit. Nora and Thornetta are on my symposium along with Wayne Baker Brooks with whom Nora played on a recent cruise. Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds – also at this year’s Biscuit – plays harp on one of Nora’s originals on BluesWoman: “He’s a mean man and I’d leave him if I could…he been gone so long/Don’t you know he’s done me wrong/Now I’m back in his arms right where I belong.”
Her faith is the fuel that revs her engine. “Yeah. I’m a woman of faith. I believe everything I read in the Bible. That’s how I lead my life, through God. I have faith in God. Anything goes wrong, I put it in his hands because YOUR will be done, not mine ’cause my will is all screwed up. I give it to you, Father. I put it in your hands in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, and it works out fine.”
Nora writes songs like most people go to the refrigerator to get a drink. As of 2007, she’d written more than 700. But her life is hectic. “I’m trying to do the school bus thing. (She drives for both high school and elementary school.) I’m trying to do my shows. I’m trying to book. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I wake up, and now my computer I think has a virus. I’m gonna try to take it in when I get off work today. I have to get my car fixed. I had to rent a truck to go up to Indianapolis to a blues festival this past weekend – drive all the way up there by myself and all the way back.”
She’s in discussion with Alligator blues master Toronzo Cannon about collaborating on her next LP. “Toronzo is supposed to be producing an album,” she told me earlier this month. “He’s going to come over and put some music to my songs and stuff. That’s what we plan on doing. Toronzo called me yesterday, but we’re supposed to get together this morning or whatever.
“I never been in high school. A lotta stuff I don’t know. I’m not a good speller. But I know how to read and write. I know how to add. I had to work in the cotton fields.”
Nora Jean Wallace is hardcore! If blues is truth, Nora tells all every time she takes the stage.