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Music Review: Alecia Nugent – Hillbilly Goddess

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Hillbilly Goddess seems an apt title for Alecia Nugent’s third outing. She’s the pride of tiny Hickory Grove, Louisiana. And her lyrical reflections on the simple life, far from urban uproar, are no doubt inspired by her rural upbringing.

Nugent made waves with her self-titled debut, released in 2004, bringing a fresh voice and invigorating energy to a strong collection of contemporary bluegrass tunes. Her follow-up, however, 2006’s A Little Girl … a Big Four-Lane suffered from somewhat formulaic material that too often resorted to maudlin sentiment.

Hillbilly Goddess treads much the same territory, a mix of blazing bluegrass and hurtin’ country with primarily acoustic backing. For the most part Nugent has selected sturdy songs that provide a fine musical platform for her extraordinary vocals. And for the first time she has a hand in the compositions, with co-writing credits on both “Hillbilly Goddess” and the obviously autobiographical “Nugent Family Band.”

Things kick off with “Wrecking The Train,” a driving tune with a sassy sensibility that establishes the template right away. The song features the harmonies and fleet-fingered picking one expects in bluegrass, but the presence of drums indicates a refreshing disregard for convention.

“Don’t Tell Me,” is both touching and timeless, a tearjerker that tugs gently on the heartstrings to excellent effect. The title tune would no doubt be cheesy in lesser hands, but Nugent and company pull it off through sheer exuberance and sincerity. “Just Another Alice” mines a similar theme, yet another story-song about squandered hopes and dreams, but again, one never doubts Nugent’s commitment to the narrative. Despite an effective arrangement, though, sentiment gets a bit sticky with “The Last Greyhound.” Following hard on the heels of “Alice,” the story is simply too similar, a little too calculated to be convincing.

The tongue-in-cheek “Crying All The Way To The Bank” is a delight, a saucy tale of turning the tables powered by breakneck string work all around. “Dyin’ To Hold Her Again,” despite good intentions, again resorts to refrigerator-magnet sentiment to make its point, and the old-timey sounding “Nugent Family Band” is obviously close to Nugent’s heart but seems unlikely to connect with casual listeners.

The last three tracks provide a strong finish, though. “Wishin’ Hard” is as winsome and wistful as its title suggests, “The Writing’s All Over The Wall,” a duet with Bradley Walker, is classic honky-tonk heartbreak, and “Already Home” is simply gorgeous in its gossamer delicacy.

Nugent’s vocals throughout are clear and confident, with just enough of a relaxed drawl to keep things firmly rooted in good, honest dirt. Accompaniment is uniformly excellent, with those drums applied sparingly and only as appropriate (bluegrass purists will hardly notice!).

Alecia Nugent clearly has the poise and talent to assume the mantle of ‘Hillbilly Goddess.’ And there’s obviously an audience for sentimental songs that tug on the heartstrings. A bit more discrimination in the choice of material, though, would render results more memorable next time out.

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