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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
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Lucero frontman Ben Nichols went through the punk phase, then survived the metal years. But, ultimately he settled on country. It wasn't the Memphis surroundings that influenced his taste for the form but rather an urge to grow as a songwriter.
"I don't think I was looking for something more mature; I was wanting to do something different, something not as fast and not as loud and something where you could understand the lyrics," says Nichols, who's calling from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he's visiting his parents. He litters this conversation with "yeahs," "I dunnos," and "you knows" -- sometimes all three at once.
Nichols may struggle to get his thoughts across during discussions, but on album he effortlessly pours his heart out, touching on the universal subjects that country embraces... minus the dog dying. Fusing punk gusto with roots rock and Southern grit, Lucero (Nichols, bassist John Stubblefield, and drummer Roy Berry) balances modern indie hooks and traditional Americana structures. Call it alt country or Southern indie rock, but Nichols isn't quick to label the end product. "I just want to write simple, straightforward songs," Nichols says. "A good song is a good song regardless of what genre it's presented in. We're not limited to a certain scene or a certain set of rules, and it makes things even more interesting."
Growing up in Arkansas and influenced by bands including the Pogues, the Boss, and Tom Waits, Nichols performed in several small-scale metal and punk pop outfits before moving to Memphis to be near his girlfriend after he graduated college several years ago at age 21. He began rocking with metal act Vegas Thunder and later emo punks Red 40. Upon catching a set of the latter band, guitarist Brian Venable asked Nichols to help him form a group that punk rockers would hate.
Instead, Nichols found the punks weren't turned off by the country-fried twang; they actually enjoyed it. "A really weird mix of people come to our shows," Nichols says. "You have actual redneck cowboys wearing the hats for real. And then there's the city cowboys and punk rockers and frat boys and indie-rock crowds. Then there are normal people who just come see us play. I hear people complaining, 'Why is this or that group of people at your shows?' and I say 'I don't care. As long as they're here, it's fine. They're not doing anything to you; just calm down.' "
Local start-up label Madjack offered the young act a deal, releasing the band's late 2000 self-titled debut, which featured North Mississippi Allstars Cody and Luther Dickinson on guitars. After a string of 200-plus shows that included opening stints for the Allstars as well as the Drive-by Truckers and Alex Chilton, Lucero unveiled Tennessee, which Cody Dickinson produced.
Given that money was tight, the band did its own booking, website, and merchandise sales. Even with today's larger (albeit not grandiose) budget, Nichols prefers to maintain control over those aspects of Lucero. "I've found that keeping everything under the band's supervision is the best," he says. "I don't mind. It makes it the kind of band that I want it to be."
For its third album, Lucero signed with New York City label Tiger Style, which released last year's That Much Further Westalong with a second version of the album that features demos of the studio effort and alternate-version tracks with different tempos and structures. "We just toyed with the possibilities of each song and what it could be," Nichols explains. "It was kind of getting a second shot at a song, like 'This is what could have happened.' That or you can also see how it developed from one different version to another."
On That Much Further West,which the band recorded in a Memphis warehouse where Elvis took karate lessons at one point, Lucero bounces from a more rock-driven attack on efforts like "Hate and Jealousy" and "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good" to campfire cowboy serenades on the fiddle-riddled "Joining the Army" to more reflective ballads like "When You Decided to Leave," on which Nichols, with a raspy twang that at times recalls a Stetson-wearing Paul Westerberg, voices his displeasure with yet another failed relationship. ("I was so young and bold/The man you decided to leave is now tired and old.") Lucero's alt-country elements are not only a direct result of its Memphis upbringing but also of Nichols' life overall, particularly the heartbreak.
"If it's not word-for-word, it's pretty close most of the time," says Nichols, who's also the band's chief lyricist. "Sometimes, a couple of different girls, or a couple of different feelings intertwine. But I never got into fictional stuff."