Even with the economy teetering and the record industry imploding, this just might be the year for Lucero. They tour hard, they sing songs about rock shows and pretty girls—two things even "big D" Depression can't touch—and they've had a decade of lean times to prepare them.
On the eve of the presidential inauguration, frontman Ben Nichols chatted with the Scene from his home in Memphis after he'd spent a morning shopping to replace the band's recently stolen trailer. Offered condolences, he simply joked that it comes with the territory. And despite that recent setback and the woeful state of the country's financial system, the gravel-voiced songwriter sounded optimistic about 2009—well, at least for Lucero.
"We kind of function in our own economy," says Nichols. "So, even though things aren't looking so good, we might have a good year."
2009 will be a year of evolution for the Memphis quartet. In late 2008 the band signed a four-album deal with Universal Music Group. And on Jan. 20, Nichols released his solo debut. The band, who've managed to carve out a career—and a borderline-rabid fanbase—by hitching mournful country tones and punk energy to workmanlike rock 'n' roll, knows the role of hardscrabble, underdog road warriors—it even led to a star turn in Dreaming in America, a feature-length documentary detailing life on the road for an American band of a certain level: loved by some, anonymous to most. That role may change.
The band are also featured in three episodes of Craig Brewer's latest project Five Dollar Cover, a web series for MTV based on Memphis' underground music scene. Brewer, the Hustle and Flow auteur and loyal Memphian, recently previewed the 15-episode series at the Sundance Film Festival. The project takes a pseudo-realistic look—think The Hills meets Dig—at the city's indie scene through a wide range of artists, from songstress Amy LaVere to rapper Al Kapone.
Brewer cast Nichols as the "true love" of his star Clare, the "drinking, dancing muse of all the rockers in Memphis." Nichols has yet to see any of the finished product but is cautiously optimistic about the project's potential. "I have a whole lot of faith in Craig," he quips, "but I don't necessarily have a whole lot of faith in my acting abilities. We'll see if "$5 Cover" works, and if people respond to it.... We'll see if the medium actually functions the way it should."
Success these days is often contingent on being able to straddle the old and the new—relentless touring and shoestring budgets alongside digital releases and new media exposure. In the end, it's all about methods that cost mostly effort. Fortunately for this band, they've grown something over the course of 10 years and seven albums that is relatively immune to bumps and expected twists.
"I mean, we can't get laid off," says Nichols. "Nobody can stop me from picking up a guitar and going down to a bar and playing music. We've spent the last decade building this thing up and it's something that nobody can really take away from us. At least not overnight. We haven't taken anything from any labels. We don't owe anybody anything."
Last fall, Nichols took the occasion of the birth of guitarist Brian Venable's son to try another new thing. His solo debut, The Last Pale Light in the West, was released on the band's imprint Liberty & Lament on Jan. 20. The "mini-album" features seven songs based on the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. It's an interesting move from this master of the plaintive, first person tell-all.
"I've never done any concept project of any kind," says Nichols. "Rereading this book made a big impression on me.... There have been a few songs [in the third person] on the last couple records, but it's never really been something I've been good at. I've been having writers' block and kind of running out of stuff to say about my own life so it was a nice exercise to use this book as reference material."
Last Pale Light is a moody, atmospheric record that recalls the band's earlier allegiance to sparse twangy Americana. Piano man Rick Steff and Murfreesboro's own Todd Beene on pedal steel fill in the space behind Nichols' guitar.
As for the band, a new album is in the works. They plan to expand on the sprawling, Springsteen-esque verve of 2007's Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. After throwing out a bunch of "new direction" speak, Nichols finally revealed a tasty nugget: "I guess we're trying to combine the country rock we've always done with more of a Memphis soul kind of thing. Basically, what I'm saying is there's gonna be horns on the next record" [laughs].
No matter how different the palette, the new record is guaranteed to have Nichols' ornery howl, Venable's winding guitar lines and drummer Roy Berry's asymmetrical thwacks. In short: It'll be a Lucero record—emotional, unpretentious and fun, even in the face of Nichols' exquisite attempts to unload his fractured heart—perfect for the laid-off, the beaten-down and the slightly drunk.