Long before Memphis-born sensation Lucero was conceived and years before the band would even dream of setting off on their strenuous, almost-constant 15-year touring spree, there was only a group of scruffy teenagers with aspirations of continuing their city’s proud tradition of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I had never really played in a band before and I wanted to start one, but I didn’t really know how to play guitar too well. I had been bugging a few people about starting a band for a while, then I ran into Ben Nichols, who had been in a band called ‘Red 40,’” says Brian Venable, one of Lucero’s founding members and lead guitarist. “I kind of conned him into a starting a band, when we met up to jam he showed up with a whole lot of songs and I had like one guitar part.” After that chance meeting with Nichols, the two set off on a blistering journey that would last for many years to come, eventually joining up with Venable’s childhood friend and future bassist John C. Stubblefield as well as drummer Roy Berry.
By 1998, the band had formed a steady four-piece lineup which to this day remains the core of the group. It was then that Lucero was born. “I found the name in a Spanish-English dictionary, it said ‘bright star,’ and I thought to myself ‘That sounds good,’” recalls the barrel-chested Venable, who wears his southern heritage on his sleeve in the form of a myriad of tattoos that echo the band’s whiskey-soaked lyrics.From that point on the four-piece would start gigging in and around Memphis, playing any venue or backyard that would let them set up. “In the early days we played lower-ranking shows, every club that was open for 10 minutes, then shutting down the next day, and playing in whoever’s backyard we could,” says Venable. “We’d go to a party, they’d pull out an extension cord and we would set up right there in their backyard, and we would get shocked every time one of us would touch the microphone.”
The burgeoning band found solidarity in Memphis’s music scene, a breeding ground for musicians with the same ambitions that the newly hatched Lucero had. The group pushed forward, trying to find their own sound. “At the time there were tons of local bands in Memphis, there was a great music scene. There wasn’t any pressure, we could and did create our own style of music to some degree,” says Venable. “In Memphis, we were allowed to incubate, so to speak. We would practice about once a week and we did what we thought sounded right. There wasn’t anyone telling us, ‘That’s not how you do it.’ We were able to grow a form of our own, and at our own pace.”In 2001, the band found their sound and released their debut studio album, the eponymous ‘Lucero,’ with another full-length release the following year titled ‘Tennessee.’ “When we recorded the first two records, I was working at a record store, Ben was driving back and forth from Little Rock and we all had jobs, it wasn’t the full-pounding band that it is today,” says Brian. “When we listen to some of our older records, I immediately cringe because I feel we could record those albums so much better now.”
In the 11 years to follow Tennessee’s 2002 release the band has released six other full-length albums, along with their recent EP, ‘Texas & Tennessee,’ which was released this past April. “A lot of bands these days don’t stay together for 15 years, they break up quicker than that. You can’t make the same record over and over again, and after that long you get kind of tired, you want to experiment with your music; keep it fresh,” says Venable.Though staying true to their southern-rooted style and heartfelt lyrics, the band’s sound has evolved from the simple-natured rawness that was the essence of their earlier recordings into their own beautifully-composed signature dissonance that defines the band through songs like “My Best Girl,” an ode to lead singer Ben Nichols’ faithful six-string partner and “Go Easy,” a drifting tune for a rainy Sunday backed by an uplifting gospel choir. “After 15 years as a group, or even as an individual person or musician, a band would hopefully grow creatively. I think when you’re starting out and growing up you wish you were from anywhere other than where you are, wherever it is for whoever it is; kids just go through a certain rebellious stage,” says Stubblefield, the band’s bassist. “Being from Memphis you kind of rebel against the whole Elvis and Blues scene, since it’s practically been shoved down your throat your whole life, but at a certain point, we came to embrace our region and where we were from, a lot of people don’t do that.”
This melodious rebellious streak continued in fall of 2009 when the band released their first album to feature a horn section, 1372 Overton Park, which was distributed through Universal Music Group. “You start out at a certain level of playing, and it’s been 15 years since we started. What were you listening to 15 years ago, what were you writing? Over time you get better at what you do. However, the horns and keys opened up our music’s possibilities, we thought, ‘Maybe it’d be cool if we did this or that -- and now we can,” says Venable. “The horns and keys give us a bigger sonic palette to do what we wanted, a lot of bands will bring pianos and horns on the record and just tour as a four-piece, but we take the whole band out and tour, which a lot bands don’t do anymore.”As the band has grown musically and popularity-wise, they have also added several members and instruments to their original lineup, including pianist Rick Steff, pedal steel player Todd Beene and a handful of horn players. All of which have expanded their sound and versatility leaps and bounds beyond a small band of backyard strummers. “Over time we grew, one of the first times we went to Little Rock we played little pavilion outside, now we’re playing The Riverfront Amphitheater,” Stubblefield says.
The band continues writing songs and releasing albums that mirror their life experiences, from lovers, liquor, friendships and the good and bad that accompanies the in-betweens. “Our songs, for the most part, are about chasing girls, catching girls, hanging out and having a good time, or not hanging out and having a real bad time; it’s just about parts of life, good old fashioned love songs,” says Venable. “I think we’re doing what we’re supposed to, we go out and we play music that people will want to have a good time to and sing along with; the ‘nights to remember’ kind of thing.”Due to Lucero’s distinct sound, the band has been deemed a number of different genres, ranging from alt-country to heartland rock, country-punk to soul. However, the band feels there is only one category they truly belong in. “We don’t try to cite our genre anymore, we just want to be a rock ‘n’ roll band,” says Venable. “You want to be up there with the Tom Pettys, the ZZ Tops. We’re not an alt-country band, we’re not southern rock — we’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Over the past 15 years, the band has made a reputation for themselves for spending more hours on the road than they do at home, sometimes being on the road for more than 200 days out of the year. “At this point we’re a band of brothers and we definitely have our ups and downs, fights and this and that, but it always works out, at this point it’s just what we do,” says Stubblefield. Though it may be hard to imagine being in a van with the same three people for the better part of the past two decades, the band seems to find ways to deal with one another’s differences. “We don’t see each other that much when we’re home, we all go through our problems, just like a family, when we have arguments they might last a little while, but when you live in this box together for 200 days out of the year, you learn to get over things pretty quick,” says Venable.And while the idea of playing the same catalog of songs for years might seem exhausting, the members of Lucero find ways to make every night a memory of its own while still incorporating a sense of familiarity that accompanies the lyrics Nichols belts out nightly. “Generally, we don’t even write out a setlist. We’ll pull out tunes ourselves and take requests from the crowd, so that is definitely something that keeps playing shows fresh for us,” says Stubblefield. “Sometimes we will revisit a song that we haven’t played in a year, and suddenly we’re playing it in front of 500 people, it keeps us on our toes and having fun for sure.”The band has made a name for themselves across the country, gaining notoriety through various outlets like Craig Brewer’s $5 Cover on MTV.
Along with some notable media appearances and excellent reception among reviewers, the band has carved their own niche and formed an audience of adults and teens from all across the country. “Crowds are a growing and evolving thing,” says Stubblefield, who pauses to knock on wood before continuing. “However, there have always been and still are punk rock kids hanging out with the normal kids, metal kids standing next to all different versions of skater kids, and all of these different groups of folks that you wouldn’t typically see at a show together just hanging out and having a good time. At Lucero shows there all kinds of people getting along and being brought together through the power of music.”
When Venable and Stubblefield are not on tour they still reside behind the bluffs in Memphis, still paying homage to the city that made them the band they are. “I don’t think the band would exist except for the fact that we’re from Memphis, due to the influences we were formed by. Even if somehow the band met in some other city in an alternate reality, I assure you we wouldn’t be the same band, nor would be playing as well as we are now. Memphis is right in the middle of the country, we were allowed to branch out, easily tour and grow like a proverbial pebble in a pond. I guarantee if we were from the West Coast or the East Coast we would of moved after a couple of years,” says Stubblefield. “People come to Memphis from all over the world, some just to pay homage to Elvis, but anywhere you go Memphis is kind of a Mecca to rock ‘n’ roll and blues. Everything that comes from here is a part of this lineage, and to honor and spread that lineage by getting out and about around the country is like being an ambassador of sorts for Memphis music, and I take that very seriously.”When it comes to the legacy of Lucero, Stubblefield recalls a story he had heard about the Memphis legend behind Sun Studio’s golden years, Sam Phillips. “Back in the day, Sam Phillips once said something about Rock ‘n’ roll that I hope people will think about us, back then people would ask him ‘What is this music? Black people are listening to it, white people is listening to it, rich folks, poor folks, everybody is listening to Elvis Presley and the music coming from Sun Studios,’ and he said, ‘It’s just good music for good people,’ before Rock ‘n’ Roll was coined that’s what they called it. Good music for good people,” says Stubblefield. “Fifty years from now, or anytime between, I hope that’s how our music and us are perceived, good music for good people.”
Music | September 2013
Heartbreaks, Hangovers and Southern Hospitality
Genre-defying native sons Lucero celebrate 15 years of soulful singing with the release of Women & Work.
Story by Samuel Prager