It didn’t take Alecia Nugent long to rise to the top tier of bluegrass vocalists, and she did it on the considerable strength of her first album. While she has yet to win a major industry award, the Louisiana native has twice been nominated by the International Bluegrass Music Association — in 2004 and 2005 — as emerging artist of the year. More recently, she was a finalist for the best traditional female vocalist prize from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America.
Add to these distinctions Nugent’s increasingly heavy touring schedule and you get the picture of an artist who’s very much on her way up. To sustain her momentum, her label, Rounder Records, has just released her second album, A Little Girl … A Big Four-Lane. Like its predecessor, the album was produced by Grammy-winner Carl Jackson.
Lyrically, A Little Girl has a strong country flavor even though the instrumentation is canonical bluegrass. This blurring of stylistic borders doesn’t bother Nugent at all.
“I’m certainly OK with either one,” she says, referring to how her music is labeled. “I feel like I kind of ride both lines there because I do a lot of traditional bluegrass stuff in my shows. But then I also do what I call ‘acoustic country.’ Both of them make me happy.”
Nugent grew up in a family that played and performed bluegrass. Her father formed the spare-time Southland Bluegrass Band the year she was born. When she was a teenager, she began singing occasionally with the group, and she continued to do so after she married and had children. “Back then,” she recalls, “I was working a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job [in a bankruptcy court] and singing with my dad on maybe 20 festivals a year.”
When an admirer of her singing offered her financial backing, Nugent linked up with Jackson, whom she had met in Mississippi at a songwriters showcase, and recorded her first album. She released it on her own in 2001 under the title For Love’s Sake and under her married name, Alecia McRight.
Made up of new songs and a smattering of such standards as “I’ll Stay Around,” “Jealous Heart” and “Think of What You’ve Done,” her first album was so impressive that it soon caught the attention of Rounder Records. The label signed her in 2002 and, with only minor remixing, reissued For Love’s Sake in 2004 as Alecia Nugent.
Nugent says that when it came time to record her second album she had “only a couple of songs” on hand that she’d been saving for the project. “I depend a lot on Carl to feed me material,” she explains. “Being a songwriter himself, he has access to so many publishing companies and so many songwriters that give him demos.”
Of the estimated 80 songs she considered for the new album, Nugent settled on tunes by the likes of Larry Cordle, Leslie Satcher, Jerry Salley, Max D. Barnes, Dixie and Tom T. Hall, Ronnie Bowman and, of course, Jackson. Probably the most familiar of these is Jackson and Salley’s “Breaking New Ground,” which was a Top 15 country hit in 1989 for the female group, Wild Rose.
Nugent says she and Jackson are seldom at odds over which songs to record. “I can think of probably one time that we’ve gone against each other on a song,” she says. “Usually if I disagree with Carl on a song, it’s because I’m hearing it in the arrangement that’s [on the original demo]. Then Carl sits down with a guitar and says, ‘Here. This is the way I hear you singing it,’ and plays a completely different arrangement. … That’s part of being a great producer.”
While she’s building up a core of songs identified with her, Nugent continues to sprinkle her shows with bluegrass and country classics. She estimates she did “50 or 60” shows last year, and this season looks even busier.
The switch from “girl singer” to bandleader suits her just fine, she says. “What woman doesn’t like to be in control?”