Alecia Nugent is quick to point out that there's more than a little irony in the title of her third album. Around the time her second album, "A Little Girl…A Big Four Lane," hit the stores, prominent Music City journalist and critic Robert K. Oermann dubbed her a "hillbilly goddess" (which he reaffirms in his liner notes for the new disc), and the sobriquet has stuck to her since, despite the fact that her central Louisiana hometown of Hickory Grove is singularly lacking in hilltops and hollers.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to try out her own developing talents as a tunesmith, she co-wrote the album's title track with Sonya Kelly and Carl Jackson, who continues as her producer. An up-tempo testament to the virtues of the kind of gal who prefers the Tennessee version of Paris to the French one, Nugent laughs as she agrees that the song was a blast to write.
"We toyed with the idea of writing the Hillbilly Goddess song for a while because I was afraid that since (Oermann) called me a ‘hillbilly goddess,' they were expecting to write a song about me. I went to Carl and Sonya and said, ‘Look, I'm all for writing this song, but I'm no ‘hillbilly goddess,' even though Robert K. Oermann called me one. I want to write this song about all those hillbilly goddesses out there in the audience. The guy sitting next to his hillbilly goddess, who believes exactly that that's what she is. It was so much fun because we sat down and, once we realized that was the direction we were going we started throwing ideas out there. It was so funny, certain things that we would come up with. And it's so true for so many people. But it was just fun to write, just a lot of crazy lines came to our heads, and we put it down to paper, and there you have it."
She also teamed up with the Halls - Tom T. and Dixie - to pen Nugent Family Band, an autobiographical tune about growing up in a family band, an experience she has in common with one of her icons, Rhonda Vincent. Taking the songwriting plunge in the company of veteran pros like Kelly, Jackson and the Halls was, she says, a bit scary but ultimately richly rewarding.
"I learned that I can get really nervous and really intimidated sitting in front of people like that. I learned those kinds of songwriters, even though they have a (large number) of great songs in their catalogs, they're still just as down-to-earth and willing to help out a ‘baby' writer - I'm calling myself a ‘baby' writer because I'm a beginner – and made me feel so comfortable in the writing session. I learned a lot from them, (that) the person who comes up with the melody is just as important as the person who comes up with the lyrics. I still have a lot of growth (to come) there, but it's quite the experience."
Though it was in her father's bluegrass band that she got her first taste of the professional side of the music business, she recounts in Nugent Family Band that her mother was an important early mentor as well, even if she wasn't part of the band. It was a childhood filled with both the bluegrass that her father loved and the Southern Gospel she heard at home and in church.
"My mom was a big part of my musical bringing-up, because (she) played piano in church, and we always sang around the piano for special music in church on Sundays."
The same year she was born (she politely declines to name the year – "A lady never tells her age"), her father, Jimmy Nugent, founded the Southland Bluegrass Band.
"I'd get on the stage with them at a young age and sing with my brothers – Hole In The Bottom Of The Sea, actually. I had influences from both sides, but (mom) wasn't actually in the band as a piano player. So, yeah, the Southern Gospel is a big influence as well as the bluegrass."
As she grew into her teen years she began performing the traditional bluegrass her father had schooled her in, even as her contemporary Alison Krauss – now a Rounder label mate – was bringing new sounds into the music. "I had already started singing in my dad's band at the age of 15, and that was right about the time that Alison came out on Rounder – now, I'm telling my age – but I may have had a little bit of influence from Alison, and I certainly love her music, but if anybody, my dad was my biggest influence because when I (name) Stanley Brothers, and Jimmy Martin, Flatt and Scruggs, people like that (as influences), it's because I heard my daddy sing their stuff."
"I didn't even know whose songs they were. You know…it probably wasn't until I started singing in the band, and I would hear them speak of, ‘well, Carter Stanley did that,' or whatever, for the longest time I thought those were my dad's songs. So, that was my biggest influence. Certainly as I was getting a little bit older I started listening to Alison and listened to Rhonda. I grew up with a dad who told me I had to sing out loud, so I was probably closer to Rhonda's music than I was to Alison's. But now, I love Alison just as much."
The Writing's All Over The Wall from "Hillbilly Goddess" is a prototypical country "hurtin'" song in which Nugent pairs up with IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Bradley Walker in an exquisite duet. Written by the bluegrass songwriter's songwriter Larry Cordle in tandem with Connie Leigh, it was an opportunity Nugent couldn't pass up.
"Larry asked Brad and myself to do the demo right after it was written, he called myself and Bradley up and asked if we would come into Nashville to record a demo for this song. So, we heard it before anyone else heard it, you know, as soon as the writers were finished with it. (I) loved it so much during the demo session that I went ahead and called Larry and said, ‘Hey, I want to do this duet with Bradley on my record, so will you hold it for me?', and, of course, he did."
As on her previous records, the arrangements feature drums, and as tasteful and restrained as they may be, she admits with a wry laugh that there are some who just won't see the forest for the trees – or hear the music through the drums, as the case may be.
"I've already had that happen with the last record, and certainly there are gonna be people who will say those things, that it's ‘too country,' or it ‘shouldn't have drums on it if it's bluegrass.' But my comeback is, well, Jimmy Martin did it, the Osborne Brothers did it – why can't I have drums on my records? It's not ‘in your face,' you can barely tell that they're there. I mean, a drum is the most acoustic instrument there is, right?"
Times are as tight in Nashville as anywhere else these days, the gigs aren't quite as plentiful (though she does have trips to the Northeast and Canada on tap for the summer), and so Nugent is hoping that the new album can generate enough buzz to keep her career momentum moving forward until the promoters and venues get back up to speed. If it takes a special Hillbilly Goddess "prize pack" offer on the website (alecianugent.com or hillbillygoddess.com, take your pick), well, you gotta do what you gotta do. In the end though, Nugent says, it's all about continuing to find and create new music.
"We're always looking for great songs for the next album, so that's an ongoing thing, but certainly we're just focused on this album for right now and trying to make the best of it, and we'll worry about the next album in a few months."