Making A Scene Presents an Interview with Alecia Nugent
Alecia Nugent is embracing her roots in classic country on The Old Side of Town, her first collection of new music in 11 years. Already familiar to bluegrass fans through three albums on Rounder Records, Nugent turned to producer Keith Stegall and a number of Nashville’s most accomplished studio musicians for The Old Side of Town – where the fiddle and steel guitar are perfectly matched to Nugent’s emotional vocals, original songwriting, and hard-won perspective.
“Country plays just as much of a role in the way I sing as bluegrass does,” she says. “I grew up listening to old country music and I grew up listening to bluegrass. And I’ve always wanted to do a classic country record.”
A native of Hickory Grove, Louisiana, Nugent absorbed the country and bluegrass music of her father Jimmy Nugent’s group, the Southland Bluegrass Band, which he launched the same year she was born. Sitting around the piano, her parents also taught Nugent and her two older brothers how to sing Southern gospel songs and bluegrass harmony. As a kid, she was a natural on stage and got hooked on the applause; she stepped into the role of lead singer in her late teens.
An independently recorded album led to a contract with Rounder Records, yielding three albums between 2004 and 2009. Blessed with a strong, persuasive voice, she relocated to Nashville, earned multiple industry nominations, and appeared 71 times on the Grand Ole Opry, including once with her dad. But in 2009, she took a break from touring to focus on being a mom after a divorce.
“I certainly did not mean to take 10 years off,” she says. “I went back home thinking I would be there to raise my girls and figure out a way to continue making music from Louisiana.”
However, those ambitions faded when she found out her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. She remained in Louisiana to put her family first, taking jobs like selling luxury cars (which suited her as a self-described “people person”) and working for a small local newspaper. After her father’s death and all three of her daughters leaving the nest, Nugent decided to pick up where she left off and returned to Nashville.
“Looking back on the last 10 years away from the music, I feel like I’ve grown up — personally, spiritually, and vocally,” she says. “I still try to sing with volume, when I need to. It’s how my daddy taught me. But not all songs can be delivered the same way. It’s about emotion, not volume.” With a laugh, she adds, “Daddy, if you’re listening, don’t blame me, life turned me this way!”
Remarkably, Nugent has retained the range and power of her voice from a decade ago and she still possesses a knack for choosing material, particularly the title track written by Tom T. Hall. That song is also an homage to Hall and his late wife, Dixie, who offered Nugent a housekeeping job on the spot when she first moved to town, just as long as she’d promise to put her music career first.
“They understood when I needed to take off on a Thursday or Friday, to play on the weekends. And then come Monday I was right back at work,” Nugent recalls. “I’m one that has to stay busy and has to be working all the time, so it worked out perfectly.”
The Halls guided her early attempts at songwriting, and with further encouragement from Stegall, she took it upon herself to try co-writing. Some of the songs draw from real life, like “They Don’t Make ‘em Like My Daddy Anymore” and the heartbreaking “Way Too Young for Wings,” composed after her daughter’s boyfriend was killed in a truck accident at 21 years old.
Nugent says she can hear the sadness while listening to The Old Side of Town, and in fact, one of the tracks is titled “Sad Song.” She explains, “I can’t say that every song in there is about my life, but a lot of it is. It’s an album full of life, it’s an album full of death, and it’s all the brokenness in between.”
Yet there’s also a sense of humor on “I Thought He’d Never Leave,” and the breakup songs are not always what they seem, as in “The Other Woman” and “I Might Have One Too.” In addition, “Too Bad You’re No Good” gives Nugent a chance to show her versatility with an upbeat song, which could go bluegrass or country. And throughout the project, she gives the musicians, including fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Brent Mason, and steel player Paul Franklin, a chance to shine too.
“I think growing up in bluegrass, you have a little more appreciation for instrumentation,” she says. “I’ve always heard it said that bluegrass is a musician’s music, you know? Growing up that way, I appreciate those guys and what they do. They’re putting their talents forward as much as I am.”
While The Old Side of Town is a departure from her bluegrass albums, it isn’t a stretch to hear Nugent singing these classic country songs. She cites Merle Haggard and Reba McEntire as her greatest influences, and with one listen to the country shuffle “Tell Fort Worth I Said Hello,” it’s clear that Ray Price and Connie Smith are on that list of heroes, too.
Asked what she’d like her bluegrass fans to know about The Old Side of Town, she replies, “That it’s still me. We may have changed some instrumentation on this record, but the songs are still songs about life. I’ve always gone down that road. I’ve always tried to pick songs that are meaningful, and songs that people can relate to. I hope they don’t judge the fact that there is no banjo and that there’s a lot of steel guitar. I think for the most part, most people who enjoy bluegrass music are also interested in classic country, so this record’s just me, letting my roots show.”