Alecia Nugent hails from Hickory Grove, La., a small town in the north part of the state, where there's just one caution light and not much else. "We live in the sticks," she says. But that's where she found herself becoming immersed in bluegrass, with her father's touring group Southland.
"It was a family thing, so every time they went, we went," she remembers. As Nugent grew up and discovered her own love of performing, she started singing a few songs along with her father's band. By the time she was 16, she found herself behind the microphone at every gig.
"The lead singer of the band decided he wanted to leave," she says, "and I had already been sitting in with the band and I knew the songs, so my dad asked me to join."
Seems like a logical choice. But the former lead singer of Southland was a man and replacing him with a woman -- any woman -- often caused an uproar on the music festival circuit. The familiar refrains included "A woman shouldn't sing bluegrass!" and "You need to play an instrument to be in a bluegrass band!"
But that didn't deter Nugent from performing. Rather, she sang loud and proud, the way she thinks bluegrass music should sound.
"Everybody says I sing like a man," she says with a laugh. "Coming from a bluegrass field, I take that as a compliment. But that's how I learned to sing."
No, her vocals won't remind anybody of a beautiful version of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Instead, her singing style is powerful and strong, and it bolsters the 11 songs on her self-titled debut album, released earlier this year on Rounder Records.
Nugent financed the album with the assistance of a bluegrass promoter in Mississippi, and she asked the much-respected bluegrass figure Carl Jackson to produce it. A few tracks surfaced on some Rounder compilation albums last year, perking up a few ears among bluegrass fans. Then, at last year's International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) conference, a last-minute invitation from Rounder founder Ken Irwin quickly made the rounds among the event's music-hungry participants. His endorsement led to dozens of people squeezing into a cozy hotel suite for an impromptu late-night showcase.
Nine months later, with an album in tow, Nugent has signed to a booking agency, assembled her own band and is playing select shows around the country. And for now, she's driving the van to her gigs from Hickory Grove, where she now lives, after about a year and a half in Nashville.
On the evening of this interview, she is about two hours from opening for Sam Bush at the Ryman Auditorium. She admits to being anxious because it's her first performance at the historic venue, and she considers it the biggest thing that's happened to her since her Grand Ole Opry debut earlier this year. (She's made two return visits since then.)
However, after a gushing introduction from WSM personality Eddie Stubbs and an audience of her friends and family, it only took a few tunes to calm the nerves -- perhaps enhanced by the fact that most of her band members are new to the fold. Yet, she also took advantage of her country music knowledge, singing lesser-known songs made famous decades ago by Merle Haggard and Crystal Gayle. Toward the end of her hour-long set, she told the audience, "We've got to preserve bluegrass, because -- I don't know if I should say this -- it's just about the only country music we've got left!"
Although Nugent's album does offer stellar bluegrass arrangements, it also possesses the heartbroken soul of a country album. Perhaps because of the lack of women in early bluegrass music, she cites Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as her heroes.
"I've always been a country fan," she says. "The hardcore bluegrass fans say that you can't be both, but I want to show that you can sing bluegrass and country with all acoustic instruments, like they used to."