Alecia Nugent – Pain in the grass
Even harder to deal with was the impact the shift had on her relationship with her daughters. When she signed with Rounder, Nugent moved the 600 miles to Nashville and found a house big enough for her and her kids, only to see the plan stymied by ex-husbands’ custody claims. So she moved back, just as things were gearing up for Rounder’s re-release of her first album.
“I’ve done a lot of moving,” she says. “I moved back down to Louisiana in hopes of getting to see my children more, and that didn’t happen. I guess that’s when I got to my lowest point, feeling like I had lost everything. My friends were all in Nashville, while being that close to my girls and not getting to see them the way I wanted to was just too hard, even though my family’s there.
“So I thought, I can come home to see my kids, and I may as well be spending the rest of my time in Nashville, doing what I can for my career. I try to see them every other weekend while they’re in school, but sometimes it’ll be a month before I get to go down and see them. And that’s hard.”
It’s better in the summer, when she can take the girls on the road with her. “Of course, that’s the craziest time,” she says with a laugh, “because I’m telling the band, ‘OK, guys, I don’t expect you to babysit, but my kids are going to be in the vehicle, so no curse words, be on your best behavior.'”
Even so, the separation has left its mark on Nugent, tinting even the most exciting moments in her career with a degree of sadness, and strengthening her attraction to melancholy songs.
Indeed, any major-label exec moved to check out A Little Girl…A Big Four-Lane on account of the buzz in publications such as Country Weekly is likely to be disappointed. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, but feel-good moments are few and far between.
Even when the banjo crackles and the mandolin sparkles in the driving album opener, they’re serving a darker purpose — in this case, a cautionary story of a young girl racing down the highway to New Orleans. She’s on her way to meet up with an older man who’s promising her a life of ease, but Nugent knows better: “A tender heart’s an easy victim/Of an old silver tongue,” she sings in the chorus, while on the next two lines — “And they always seem to pick ’em/Innocent and young” — her voice draws out the latter phrase with a knowing, almost bitter edge.
The song ends with the girl recalling her father’s advice (“If it seems too good to be true/It probably is”), but everything before it suggests she’s only going to learn its truth the hard way.
A Little Girl…A Big Four-Lane isn’t all unrelieved heartache. A few rays of hope are scattered across its thirteen tracks, including the feisty declaration of independence “Breaking New Ground”, Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “I Cried All The Way To Kentucky” (which celebrates the life of a departed uncle by following its title line with “And then I smiled all the way home”), and the closing gospel quartet “Meet Me In Heaven Someday”.
Still, virtually all of the rest of the album, save one gem, and including Nugent’s own favorites — “God Knows What”, “Letter From Home”, “Where His Wheels Left The Road” and “A Dozen White Roses” — collectively revolve around longing, regret, nostalgia, disappointment, betrayal and death. It’s impossible to listen to her readings without feeling she’s intimately acquainted with them all.
That one exception, “When It Comes Down To Us (It’s All Up To You”), is worth pointing out not only for its own sake, but because it features Nugent’s favorite singing partner, Bradley Walker. A frail, wheelchair-bound young man with a rich, resonant baritone that’s impressive enough for me to have called him “arguably the best unsigned singer in bluegrass today” two years ago (he’s since signed with Rounder and is starting work on an album with Carl Jackson producing), he’s the perfect foil for Nugent on a duet that offers an emotionally complex portrait of partners who pledge undying love to one another even as they doubt the other’s commitment.
“Bradley and I have had this chemistry singing together ever since the first time,” Nugent offers with quiet enthusiasm. “I met him for the first time at IBMA in 2001 — I just walked into a room where he was singing with someone else, and the next song he started singing was ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. So I jumped in there and started singing a high baritone, and we just had a ball with it.
“We stayed in contact with each other after that, and Bradley turned out to be one of my best buds. We’re really close friends; I tell everybody he’s my chosen brother, and his family has become like my second family. I go down there for the holidays and spend time with them, and they’ll usually call people over, and we’ll just sing stuff — me and Bradley and a guitar.”
It may be a while, though, before she gets to do that again. With her new album hitting the streets, a solid touring schedule with a crackerjack band (though time and budget constraints pushed her and Jackson in the direction of using an all-star core band for recording, she made sure her all touring musicians appeared at least once on the album), and even the possibility of a video in the near future, she’s pretty much where she wants to be in her career — despite a lingering concern about those bluegrass rules and how the CD will be marketed.
“It could go in either direction — country or bluegrass,” she says, “and I’m scared sometimes about whether it will turn out to be the wrong one.”
When it comes to her singing, and to the music itself, though, the worries melt away. “I think I’ve found myself,” she says with conviction. “I still had a lot of influence from other singers and other artists back on the first record, and I had a tendency to do the songs more like the demos — everything that I heard, I wanted to do it just like that. With this album, I think I’ve matured a lot more, and I’ve certainly experienced life a lot more. And when you sing songs about life, especially things that you’ve gone through, it helps you deliver a song a little bit better.”
ND contributing editor Jon Weisberger is a Nashville-based bass player and writer.