[28 May 2009]
These days, the distinction between bluegrass and country is a tricky one. As the formal differences erode, a bluegrass artist’s professed devotion to traditionalism—with an implicit distrust for Music Row—is about as important as strictly orthodox production or instrumentation or chops. Since Allison Krauss became the torchbearer for the music’s purity in the late ‘80s, she has toyed with its borders and dueted with Robert Plant and, of all people, John Waite without losing credibility.
And so we have Alecia Nugent. Also on Krauss’s home of Rounder Records, she is an alleged bluegrass artist who doesn’t play an instrument and professes equal love for Flatt, Scruggs and Reba McEntire. Produced by Grammy winner Carl Jackson, Hillbilly Goddess, her third release, finds Nugent continuing her attempts to woo the wider country-music audience from her comfort zone in the bluegrass world.
Nugent is from Hickory Grove, Louisiana where she grew up performing with her family’s traditional bluegrass group, the Southland Bluegrass Band. As a teenager, she became the group’s lead singer, slowly building her reputation around the state. In 2004, she was discovered by Mississippi bluegrass promoter Johnny Stringer who hooked Nugent up with producer Carl Jackson for her self-titled debut. It soon caught the attention of the Grand Ole Opry and Rounder Records. On her 2006 sophomore album, A Little Girl … A Big Four-Lane, Nugent and Jackson enlisted the help of Krauss and classic country songwriter Tom T. Hall, earning her the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s award for female vocalist of the year two years running.
Despite her awards from a bluegrass preservation society, her first two albums received plenty of praise for its synthesis of bluegrass with the somewhat amorphous genre of “traditional country”. Like her previous discs, Hillbilly Goddess features bluegrass heroes—most notably J.D. Crowe, among others—on songs that seem to qualify as traditional only because they lack electric instruments.
Most of the songs here are written by professionals (Nugent gets co-writing credit on the titular and the treacly autobiographical track “Nugent Family Band”) and primarily consist of overly familiar country clichés. On “Hillbilly Goddess”, Nugent describes a stereotypical redneck woman who would make Gretchen Wilson proud, borrowing a joke about Paris, Tennessee that was slightly tired when Jones and Wynette first used it 30 years ago. Elsewhere drunken widowers, hopeful country-music stars and small-town girls in the big city populate painfully familiar-lyrical narratives.
The few tracks that would be vaguely recognizable to Bill Monroe as bluegrass (“Crying All the Way to the Bank” and “Wrecking the Train”) breathe a bit of life into an album with too many saccharine ballads (“Already Home”, “Don’t Tell Me” and “Just Another Alice”) that wouldn’t have sounded particularly out of place on Faith Hill’s Fireflies or some-other piece of Nashville product. Alecia Nugent has a good voice, but the weak, unfocused material on Hillbilly Goddess makes for a frustratingly pedestrian and often just frustrating album.