august 2009

Alecia Nugent: Keeping it close to home
Photo by Carrie Nuttal

Alecia Nugent

You know, when you can’t yet be the queen of bluegrass, because someone named Rhonda Vincent has settled into that honorific for a long run, then why not go for hillbilly goddess? This may not be, technically speaking, an heir-to-the-throne-type situation, but with every earthy note she sings, Alecia Nugent asserts her claim on something above and beyond what her competitors could achieve. However, let us note for the record, so to speak, how hillbilly goddess is not a matter of self branding, a la the unfortunate King of Pop, but is, much like Nugent’s music, a pleasingly simple, strikingly descriptive and—most important—an organic rubric, arising naturally from Carl Jackson’s sonically rich soundscapes, from the exemplary musicians’ empathetic and energetic support, and especially from the sheer, moving honesty of Nugent’s plaintive singing. Her assertive voice certainly recalls Vincent’s in its reedy timbre, but her backwoods twang and nuanced phrasing are products of a full immersion in bluegrass and country vocalizing, so much so that her influences have disappeared into her own style. The poignant story of a woman daring to follow her dreams, and the attendant anxiety and self-doubt of such a bold move is fully realized in all its heart tugging atmosphere in “Just Another Place”—it doesn’t hurt that the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Leftwich is carving away at your emotional core with his rich fiddle counterpoint, but Nugent puts the ache into the number with a breathtakingly restrained reading that makes Leftwich’s heat all the more searing. This is the sort of esprit de corps you get when everyone is locked into the moment, fully invested in what’s on the line.

On the other hand, Nugent can get riled up and downright sassy, sardonic even, when she leads the band in a furious onslaught of a kissoff to a joker who walked out on her, deliciously biting into every lyric and even erupting into a mock cry in the choruses, an appropriate affectation in a song titled “Cryin’ All the Way To the Bank.” As rousing as Nugent’s vocal is on this poison pen letter, the red-hot fury emanating from Thomas Wyent’s banjo assault and similarly merciless sorties by Adam Steffey (mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro) and Tim Stafford (guitar) is in and of itself a showcase of superbly gifted musicians in a moment of adrenaline-fueled synergy. Not to put too fine a point on the queen-goddess motif, but in the driving reminiscence titled “Nugent Family Band,” Alecia recounts her musical coming of age in a way that summons thoughts of Ms. Vincent’s similar familial education in the Sally Mountain Show.

The most telling moment on Hillbilly Goddess is its last, the lovely, hymn-like “Already Home.” With Catherine Mars supplying a dignified, church-rooted piano foundation, Ickes interjecting lonely, wrenching dobro fills, and Leftwich adding a majestic wash of multiple fiddles in ascending mode, Nugent tenderly, but with firm conviction, tells of a wandering fellow whose constant travels had left him feeling rootless, up to the point when he understands how his heart had never left home. Throughout Hillbilly Goddess, Nugent’s performances betray one essential and irrevocable fact about the power source of her artistry: she’s never strayed far from her country home, in a spiritual sense, and those deep roots keep her compass pointed true. It’s an awesome thing to experience as a listener, even better to be able to live it every day. –David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024