Less Is More
Lucero brings simple, honest storytelling back to Memphis music.
By Mark Jordan
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: On the Sunday before Labor Day, the alternative country band Lucero set up on the small stage on the restaurant side of Newby's and began to play. Though the members of the band are all live-show veterans -- from previous groups and from Lucero's own breakneck gigging pace, which seemingly has them playing somewhere in town every week -- on this night they were nervous. It was the first time they had played Newby's, a place whose regular mix of college kids and High Point residents can seem oddly far removed from the downtown and Midtown crowds they'd played to in the past.
But with a twang from Brian Venable's lead guitar, lead singer Ben Nichols, with his monster truck growl of a voice, launched into one of his slow, melancholy laments about this-or-that girl and the tensions seemed to dissipate. And by the end of the night, helped along by a small core of band faithful, Lucero had staked out new territory. They were welcome here.
Over the past few months, Lucero has been similarly winning hearts and minds in almost every corner of Memphis. The band seemingly came from nowhere six months ago when it was nominated for the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Premier Player award for best new band. And since then Lucero has been the subject of some of the most intense band buzz in recent memory. The press adores them. The club owners love booking them. And everybody -- love 'em or hate 'em -- has at least heard of them.
It's been a peculiar phenomenon because, when faced with them, Lucero isn't the kind of band that blows you away. It's a fairly traditional alternative country band, similar to No Depressioners such as Whiskeytown or Wilco. ("Alternative country will do until you can think of a better word," says the usually stoic drummer Roy Berry.) There are no virtuosos in the band. ("Me and Ben make one good guitar player," says Venable.) And they don't really rock. (Venable again: "Our rockingest song is still everyone else's slow song.")
What they do have are Nichols achingly beautifully songs, a sound that is at once familiar yet distinctive, and a group-wide habit of playing just the right note and nothing more.
"Ben writes these great songs, and we just try to complement them," says Venable
Adds Nichols: "Simplicity is key. You look at Johnny Cash and it's simple and direct, and it speaks straight to the heart because of it."
Lucero has apparently also found that hotline to the human heart because the band is drawing fans from all quarters. They've opened for punk bands, rock bands, blues bands, and, as they will do this Friday for the Pawtuckets, even other alternative country bands. And at each stop they've won over fans who might not give their kind of music a shot.
Part of that appeal may lie in the band members' diverse backgrounds. Venable, whose father plays with Beale Street stalwarts the Sky Dogs, is well-known in the local hard-core scene. Berry used to be in the punk band Simple Ones. Bassist John Stubblefield has played with Big Ass Truck and Megan Reilly. And Nichols, who originally hails from Little Rock, pulls double duty in the outlandish heavy metal outfit Vegas Thunder.
Though they've popped up on most people's radar only this past summer, the band first formed more than a year ago when Venable approached Nichols about forming a "cowboy band" to "piss off the punk rockers."
"I had listened to hard core but just kind of got tired of it," says Venable. "Then I was listening to Southern rock and that got boring. So I just kept digging further and further back until I got to country."
Venable found the band's name, which means "bright star," while thumbing though a Spanish-English dictionary, and after some work with another rhythm section, the pair eventually recruited Berry and Stubblefield. (One early version of Lucero, featuring a fiddle player, was supposedly even mellower that today's lineup.)
As often as possible, the core quartet likes to flesh out its ranks with the addition of a lap steel player -- the Pawtuckets' Kevin Cubbins or, more often, the North Mississippi All-Stars' Luther Dickinson.
"We'd really like to find someone to fill that role on a full-time basis," says Nichols. "A fiddle or lap steel player or accordionist who can fill all those holes."
The band's relationship with Dickinson also led to their earliest recording efforts. Originally, Lucero went down to Coldwater, Mississippi, to help Luther test-drive his new lap steel. Soon, however, the band was in Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio with Luther's brother Cody behind the board and the venerable old man himself contributing some keyboard work. Next month, Lucero hopes to make its recording debut with a 7-inch single released on the Little Rock label Landmark. And a full-length CD produced by Cubbins is still in the works.
"That's been the biggest compliment we've gotten so far," says Nichols. "That musicians as good as Luther and Cody Dickinson and [Pawtuckets' members] Mark McKinney and Kevin Cubbins like and respect what we do."
That respect rises from the band's straightforwardness. There are no gimmicks with this band. Just music.
"We're not showmen," says Berry. "We're storytellers. Music got away from storytelling with grunge and stuff, and we're bringing it back."
Nichols, however, sees Lucero's appeal as even simpler -- and more universal -- than that.
"It's just the songs. It's honest human emotion, and everybody can recognize it," he says. "At the end of the night, when all of your battles are fought, you still have wrestle with your heart."
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