Adding a Southern flavor to their love of the indie folk-pop of Ida, Memphis alt-country rockers Lucero have suffered the turbulence that comes with the indie scene, but their story of perseverance and survival is triumphant, so much so that director Aaron Goldman made a film about it. Formed by leader Ben Nichols in the late ’90s, Lucero took their name from the Spanish word meaning “bright star.” After releasing a single on the Landmark label, Lucero — rounded out by drummer Roy Berry, bassist John C. Stubblefield and guitarist Brian Venable — signed with the alternative country label Madjack for their 2001 self-titled debut. Momentum started to build with their 2002 release, Tennessee. With critics picking up on their rock and Replacements edge, a decision was made to sign with the more diverse label Tiger Style. The 2003 release That Much Further West earned them positive reviews and a spot on Rolling Stone‘s Hot List. Things seemed to be going well, but as the album was catching indie fire, Tiger Style announced they were closing shop.
The band formed its own label, Liberty & Lament, through a deal with East West and worked on its next album with famed musician/producer Jim Dickinson. Released in spring of 2005, Nobody’s Darlings featured the most Southern-fried sounds from the band yet. Mixing archival footage along with footage shot during the recording of the album, Goldman premiered his Lucero documentary Dreaming in America in September of 2005. A month later the film was released on DVD and CD/DVD featuring 13 rare live bonus tracks. The out of print effort The Attic Tapes (originally released prior to their 2001 Madjack debut) was reissued in April 2006 with bonus early demo and rare 7″ tracks, which preceded the release of Lucero‘s next studio effort, September’s Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. Supporting tour dates through the fall followed with openers Rocky Votolato and William Elliott Whitmore. The year 2009 saw the release of Nichols‘ solo EP The Last Pale Light in the West along with the band’s album 1372 Overton Park. Lucero spent the remainder of the year on tour in support of the album.
Lucero remained busy touring during 2010 and 2011, though they didn’t record, they played festivals ranging from the SXSW Music And Media Conference, Coachella, and the Van’s Warped Tour. Nichols played some solo shows as well. Toward year’s end, they re-entered the studio to begin work on Women & Work, their debut offering for ATO Records. Produced by Ted Hutt, and featuring a full horn section –as well as guest vocals from Amy LaVere — the album was released in March of 2012 and followed by an American tour.
About Women & Work
Women & Work is a love letter from Lucero to its hometown, Memphis, Tennessee.
“Having a band in Memphis puts you in a tradition,” says Lucero frontman Ben Nichols. “We started at punk rock shows, not necessarily playing punk rock, but coming from the outside, from a bohemian place.”
The bohemian tradition is just as strong in Memphis as the city’s series of international hits. The popularity of Sun, Stax, Elvis, and Al Green doesn’t diminish the influence of the blues, Jim Dickinson, and Alex Chilton. The bridge between the shadows and the spotlight has become the heart of Lucero: Unafraid to mix pop with their anti-pop, they always charge into new territory.
As punks, Lucero were masters of restraint, with country music beer stains dribbled down the front of their shirts. As whiskey-soaked bohemians, they didn’t shy from sweeping Americana tableaus. And then they added an accordion. “When we started, we were building on a foundation we weren’t aware of,” says guitarist Brian Venable. “Listening back to our early stuff, we hear ourselves reference the old Sun Records. We didn’t hear it or feel it then, but we hear it and feel it now.”
Women & Work, their 8th album, is such an exciting presentation of the band’s eclectic explorations that it makes their 14-year meandering path appear to be a straight line to this very record. “We’re more comfortable in our own skin as a band, more comfortable acknowledging regional influences,” says bassist John Stubblefield. “We wound up making a Memphis country soul record.”
Integrating horns, pedal steel guitar, all manner of keyboards, and even a full-on gospel chorus, Women & Work is a fully realized musical extravaganza. Drawing inspiration from Delaney & Bonnie’s obscure first album, Home, on the Stax label, Lucero’s ambivalence about tradition has been replaced by an exuberant embrace. Women & Work is like Arcade Fire baptized in Joe Cocker and Leon Russell’s Mad Dogs, then warmed with Don Nix’s Alabama State Troopers.
Nichols recently moved from stage to screen, playing a lead role in the acclaimed MTV series $5 Cover, directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Footloose). The character was a rambling musician, and Nichols brought authority to the performance. In 2009, he released a solo album, The Last Pale Light In the West, a collection of acoustic songs based loosely on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
But the band remains a solid unit, even as it changes. Lucero began broadening its sound in 2005 when they brought in Rick Steff—man of the keys (piano, organ, and accordion). in 2007, they expanded again with the addition of pedal steel whiz Todd Beene, and then again more recently with Memphis’s funkiest horn section—Jim Spake and Scott Thompson (Al Green, Cat Power).
Lucero keeps on pushing. For most of the past decade, the band has averaged almost two out of every three nights on the road, steady-building their fan base. Last year, they broadened their audience on a long tour opening for Social Distortion.
Women & Work finds them on a new label, ATO Records (home to the Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket), and the fit is a good one. “The best-kept-secret band is now on the best-kept-secret label,” says Venable.
As different as Lucero may sound from their early days, this record also takes them full circle. “When we began,” says drummer Roy Berry, “we were known for how restrained we played. Our sound got bigger over the years, but the larger ensemble is making the core band sparse like we used to be—the songs just have more layers.”