Alecia Nugent – Pain in the grass
Since the release of her self-titled Rounder debut in 2004, Alecia Nugent’s pretty much heard it all — the bluegrass “rules” that insist an artist is supposed to play an instrument; that a bluegrass album is supposed to have banjo all over it (and, according to some, played only out of certain chord positions); that country songs given a bluegrass treatment are still country, not bluegrass; that a real bluegrass artist only records with his or her road band; even, from a few die-hards, that “girls can’t sing real bluegrass.”
“I’ve had lots of promoters tell me that they were hesitant to book me,” the Louisiana native says. “They’d say, ‘I admit that I was really reluctant to have you on my show, mainly because you don’t play an instrument, and so many of us feel like you were trying to just use the bluegrass thing to break yourself into country.’ But after the show, then they’re happy and they’re pleased, and they say, ‘We’re calling your agent next week and booking you back for next year.'”
Nugent’s career has been advanced before by just such chance-taking from others — that debut disc, for instance, was actually a re-release of a 2001 album financed by Mississippi festival promoter Johnny Stringer — and she’s going to need some more, for her new album, A Little Girl…A Big Four-Lane breaks even more bluegrass rules, most notably with the subtle, sympathetic drumming of Tony Creasman.
“[Producer] Carl [Jackson] and I talked about it,” she notes wryly, “and I know that this is taking a risk with so many of the traditional bluegrass fans. But first of all, I know that I can’t satisfy everyone, and I think that it’s more important for me to be true to myself, and to do the music that I love. And then, if you look back at the old Osborne Brothers records, at Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass, they had drums on their records.
“So even though I know that there are going to be people who are going to put it down, I’m not doing anything different than what the traditionalists did way back when.”
That kind of appeal to history probably seems odd to fans used to the whatever-it-takes artistic freedom of Americana (not to mention other genres), and it probably won’t make any difference to the “grassholes” (a term employed privately, though of course not publicly, by more than one major ‘grass artist).
But if Nugent seems a bit defensive, there’s good reason. Her music has turned heads beyond the bluegrass world — she showcased at SXSW in 2005 and guests at the Opry on nearly a monthly basis, while country reviewers from USA Today’s Brian Mansfield and CMT’s Craig Shelburne and Edward Morris have raved about her powerful, emotionally incisive singing — but bluegrass festivals are still her bread and butter gigs. And some of those risk-taking promoters from 2004 and 2005 are bound to feel twitchy all over again once the new album’s out.
Still, many of them, and others, too, will continue to take a chance on Nugent, and it’ll almost always happen for the same reason: She is one of the best singers they are likely to hear. Like her early influences, George Jones and Merle Haggard, Nugent has the rare ability to make a good song so completely her own that, when she sings it, the emotional truth at its core can pierce a listener’s heart.
Haggard did that with Liz and Casey Anderson’s “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”, Jones did it with Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, and Nugent does the same thing so frequently and compellingly that the bluegrass rules — not to mention the notion that a singer who writes her own songs is more believable or more creative than one who doesn’t — simply melt away.
That’s not to say Nugent isn’t interested in songwriting. “I’ve written down a few lyrics here and there, but I’ve never been able to just sit and put a song together on my own,” she notes. “There were several writers who I wanted the chance to write with, and as this album was coming up, we did our best to try to get together and write for it. It just never panned out. And I’m kind of a chicken when it comes to entering that world, even though I want to take advantage of the opportunities here. I think maybe not everybody’s meant to do it, you know?”
But if Nugent feels intimidated by the prospect of writing, she seems to compensate for it with a strong ability to instantly identify a song as one she can get inside. More often than not, they’re ones that, like Mike Ward’s “God Knows What”, relate in a profound way to her own life. “That’s pretty close to my favorite on the album,” she says. “And the first time I heard it, it hit me so hard that I wondered, did Mike write that for me? Of course, he didn’t, but it was pretty wild.”
A bittersweet ballad that elegantly reworks the classic country theme of small-town remembrance and big-city disappointment, “God Knows What” could, indeed, easily have been written with Nugent in mind. Born and raised in Hickory Grove, Louisiana, she grew up singing around the house and, while still in her mid-teens, joined her father’s bluegrass band as its lead singer. But though she continued to perform with Southland Express as she became an adult, music took a back seat to marriages and children — two of the former, three of the latter — and when she struck out on her own in the aftermath of recording that first album a few years ago, the magnitude of the sacrifices her career would demand hit her with considerable force.
“It was a tough thing to do,” she says. “Especially when your dad is the one who raised you to sing the way you do and taught you everything you know, and then you up and say ‘Hey, Dad, I’m wanting to move on to bigger and better things.'”