Rock band Lucero took the idea that punk music would sound a whole lot better with a healthy dose of country thrown in, and ran with it. First finding a loyal cadre of fans in Memphis area bars and small clubs where the band got its start in the late 1990s, Lucero's reach soon expanded to include audiences all over the United States. After making the leap from the small Memphis record label that released its first work to New York-based Tiger Style label in 2003, the group seemed poised to break through to much wider popularity. Lucero's first album with its new label, That Much Further West, hit store shelves in 2003, propelling the group's "roughed-up mixture of country and punk," as Washington Post music critic Patrick Foster put it, onto the national stage.
Lucero, which is Spanish for "bright star," was formed in 1998 when Ben Nichols and Brian Venable decided to put a new spin on country music by adding punk flavors. Venable said early on that he wanted to be able to give punk rockers a run for their money by playing hardcore country music. Much to Venable's surprise, many fans of punk rock accepted the band as one of their own.
Although it was Venable who named the band and approached Nichols about starting it, from the beginning, Nichols has written and sung most of the songs. The group's early work featured slow love songs Venable termed "cowboy emo" to Michael Donahue in the Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal. That's "cowboyish, sappy love songs," Venable told Donahue. "Emo being short for emotions."
To Nichols, the mix of country and punk is not as odd as it might first appear to some. Growing up, he and his friends liked punk bands and country acts equally well, finding that both types of music "reflected a similar approach to life," as he put it to Tim vonHolten on Lawrence.com. "It's all extremely heartfelt music." Nichols described his band to Chuck Myers of the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service as a "Southern indie rock band."
The band's two co-founders started the group with no formal music training behind them, although Nichols had been playing guitar in bands since he was fifteen years old. Out of necessity, the group's early efforts were very simple and straightforward, but nevertheless effective songs. Some of these were recorded in Venable's father's attic with the help of two new band members, drummer Roy Berry, and bassist John Stubblefield.
These first recordings became the Attic Sessions, the band's first, self-produced and self-distributed album, a 12-inch vinyl record. The group quickly sold all of its copies, and the album was picked up by Soul Is Cheap Records, which re-released it on CD in 2000.
Next came a 7-inch record released by Landmark Records called My Best Girl. This album included "Kiss the Bottle," a cover of a song by punk band Jawbreaker. For many, this track epitomized what Lucero was about—punk music played with a country twist, or country music played with a punk slant, depending on the listener's perspective.
Lucero played its first concerts locally in its hometown of Memphis, often several times a week. Occasionally the group opened for more prominent national acts on tour, including the Drive-By Truckers, the Dirty Three, Alex Chilton, the North Mississippi Allstars, and others. Luther and Cody Dickson of the North Mississippi Allstars helped the group with its first full-length CD, a self-titled album released at the end of 2000 by newly formed Madjack Records. The Dicksons also contributed guitar work to the album, and Cody Dickson produced. The album was well received by critics and fans alike, with Bill Ellis of the Commercial Appeal giving it three-and-a-half out of four stars.
The following year, with Nichols declaring to Billboard, "It's time to leave town," the group hit the road on an intense concert tour to promote the album, branching out into venues outside of Memphis. The spring of 2002 found the group opening for the North Mississippi Allstars on a national tour.
Lucero released its second full-length album, Tennessee, in August of 2002. This album, too, featured contributions by the Dicksons, and was produced by Cody Dickson. That year also brought a change in the band's lineup; Venable found the now-relentless touring schedule exhausting, and he dropped out of the band. A replacement guitarist, Steve Selvidge, picked up the slack into 2003, but Todd Gill became the Venable's permanent replacement after Selvidge left not long after joining.
Also in 2003, the band moved to New York-based Tiger Style Records for its third full-length album, That Much Further West. This was a step up for the band, as Tiger Style was a bigger label with more promotional clout. Some critics predicted that the new album could be Lucero's breakthrough work. Las Vegas City Life's Jeff Inman, for example, raved about the new album's songs that "feel as lived in and comfortable as a barstool at 2 a.m."
Released as 2003 drew to a close, That Much Further West was recorded in the band's Memphis warehouse space rather than in New York. The band also cut loose from the Dicksons for this effort; Nichols wanted a more raw, homegrown sound than the group had achieved with its previous album. The new album propelled the group on an ambitious touring schedule—up to 200 shows around the country over a year's time.
Lucero's members continue to work and live together in their Memphis warehouse space—a space that once served as a karate studio where none other than Elvis Presley took lessons.
The band showed no signs of slowing down in 2004, heading to the studio to cut its fourth album, and continuing to build its following through concerts. "It's always like finding the right club in the right town and the right core of like 20 drunk people that really like you, and then it kind of spreads," Nichols told the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service's Chuck Myers.
For the Record …
Members include Roy Berry (born in 1967), bass; Todd Gill (joined group in 2003); Ben Nichols (born in 1974) vocals, guitar; Brian Selvidge (joined group in 2002, left group in 2003); John Stubblefield (born in 1975), bass; Brian Venable (left group in 2002).
Group formed in Memphis, TN, 1998; self-released Attic Sessions on vinyl, late 1990s; released 7-inch record, My Best Girl, on Landmark, 2000; released Eight Paces to Jackson, 2000; re-released Attic Tapes on the Soul Is Cheap label, 2000; moved to the Madjack record label, released Lucero on Madjack, 2001; released Tennessee on Madjack, 2002; moved to Tiger Style label, released That Much Further West, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Tiger Style Records, 401 Broadway, 26th Fl., New York, NY 10013, phone: (212) 777-8056, fax: (212) 777-8059, website: http://www.tigerstylerecords.com. Booking—Snax Memphis, 118 Neil St., Memphis, TN 38112. Website—Lucero Official Website: http://www.lucerofamily.net.
My Best Girl (7-inch record), Landmark, 2000.
Eight Paces to Jackson, 2000.
Attic Tapes, Soul Is Cheap, 2000.
Lucero, Madjack, 2001.
Tennessee, Madjack, 2002.
That Much Further West, Tiger Style, 2003.
Billboard, February 3, 2001.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 22, 2002, p. 4.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), December 18, 1998, p. G2; January 20, 2001, p. F1.
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA), October 17, 2003, p.1.
Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, November 5, 2003, p. 1.
Las Vegas City Life, November 7, 2003.
Washington Post, October 23, 2003, p. C5.
"Lucero," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 2, 2004).
"Lucero," Snax Memphis, http://www.snaxmemphis.com/artists/index.php3?id=3 (September 2, 2004).
Lucero Official Website, http://www.lucerofamily.net (September 2, 2004).
"Q&A with Ben Nichols of Lucero," Lawrence.com, http://www.lawrence.com/news/music_interviews/story/126228 (September 2, 2004).