Have to be honest, was never a fan.
In the mid-to late-Aughts, Alecia Nugent released three bluegrass albums for Rounder Records. She was surrounded by some of the finest musicians in the business—Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Andy Falco, Adam Steffey, Ronnie McCoury, Aubrey Haynie, Jim Van Cleve, and the like—and Carl Jackson produced the albums, so they sounded good.
There was something missing in her interpretation of bluegrass. The albums didn’t feel ‘genuine,’ which I know is judge-y, and something I can’t have any knowledge about, never having been near the inner circle. Like many singers encountered at the time, it felt—listening to her CDs—she was trying too hard to be the next Rhonda Vincent, not out of passion for the music, but out of career convenience. The albums had catchy numbers—“Hillbilly Goddess,” for one, “Too Good to Be True” another, “Muddy River” and “My First Mistake.” The majority of the material though was unmemorable, stilted, overwrought, and much too wimpy.
Listening to those recordings with a decade and more of hindsight, my opinion hasn’t changed. I just don’t care for ‘that’ type of bluegrass. And that’s fine: different tastes for different folks, and she did have her fans.
Nugent left the music business after her divorce, walking away from Nashville and the bluegrass industry to focus on raising her family back home in Louisiana. Family commitments lessened, Nugent returns to music now focused on a ‘classic’ country sound. In my opinion, this approach suits her better than attempting to become the next all-American, bluegrass girl.
Nugent has been mentored by some of the best, including Tom T. and Miss Dixie Hall as well as Carl Jackson. Here she is produced by Keith Stegall, long-time hitmaker—from “Sexy Eyes” and Storms of Life through Alan Jackson’s hits, George Jones’ final ones, and the Zac Brown Band’s earliest. With Stegall’s support, and again surrounded by some of the finest musicians around—Brent Mason (electric guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle and mandolin), Gary Prim (keys), Ickes (dobro), and Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore (steel guitars)—The Old Side of Town has the ingredients a successful album requires.
Hell, on the album cover she is clutching a Don Williams records; what isn’t there to appreciate?
There remain a few sappy songs, with “Way Too Young For Wings” being the worst culprit. Outside of this single misstep—which you just know will be a popular hit because of its subject matter—The Old Side of Town is a pretty good country album.
The album’s title track comes from Tom T. Hall, and served as his next-to-last Top Ten hit forty years ago. It remains a well-written, bittersweet number, namechecking Jones while telling the tale of the guy who got above his raisin’. Nugent brings a believable angst to her performance, singing along the border separating yearning from forgetting.
Nugent has recorded Larry Cordle songs several time previously—“My First Mistake” was one of his—and here she co-writes two with him, injecting a full-measure of moaning and crying steel. “I Might Have One Too” is theatrical, but “Tell Forth Worth I Said Hello” (also co-written with Kevin Denney) is ‘straight ahead,’ retro honky tonk. Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones’ “The Other Woman” also fits within Nugent’s more assertive, emotional palate.
She has a powerful voice, one that can belt out up tempo numbers, and that is where I’d rather she spent most of her time, as on songs such as on her Stegall/Roger Murrah co-write, “I Thought He’d Never Leave”— which drops perhaps the final Foster Brooks reference that will ever be relevant. It may be the album’s finest song, with not only a superior vocal performance from Nugent, but an extended outro that allows Nashville’s finest to stretch themselves into jam-mode. Similarly successful is “Too Bad You’re No Good,” a Paul Craft-Cadillac Holmes number pulled from the Trisha Yearwood catalog.
Still, Nugent does seem to most appreciate the soppy ballads, and she does have a dramatic affinity for these, performing her other co-write with Stegall and Murrah (“Sad Song”) with considerable aplomb.
The song that may mean the most to Nugent is “They Don’t Make ‘em Like My Daddy Anymore.” A dozen years ago, I’m not sure Nugent could have pulled off this so obviously sentimental, if meaningful, song. Presented in both county and bluegrass modes, this song is a fitting testament to the distance Nugent has come as a recording artist. Of the two versions, the bluegrass rendition connects the most with me.
The Old Side of Town is a darned good country album. It contains sufficient variety that it should appeal to a wide-variety of traditional country fans, and it grows on the listener (at least, this listener) with repeated plays. A well-rounded comeback.