Lucero, Memphis alt-country veterans, is ‘long-running, hard-working, bar-rocking’

Posted on Apr 25 2019 - 5:00am by Liam Nieman

Lucero, the longtime Memphis country-rock band, is one of the oldest acts to take the Double Decker stage this weekend. They’re veterans of Double Decker, Americana music and Oxford.

The band’s lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Ben Nichols, who was on the way to pick up his daughter from daycare, said it’s an interesting spot to be in.

“We’re kind of the old standby,” he said. “Not the upcoming new kids, or the band that’s about to blow up, and we’re not the big famous act coming to town. … We’re the long-running, hard-working, bar-rocking band from Memphis.”

Lucero, consisting now of Nichols, Roy Berry, John C. Stubblefield, Rick Steff and Brian Venable, is also familiar with Oxford’s everyday scene. They’ve been playing shows at Proud Larry’s and, most recently, The Lyric since they got their start in the late ‘90s.

But Nichols said the band is “overdue for a trip to Oxford.” Their last concert in town was in 2016, when they played at Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.

“Oxford was very friendly to us right from the start,” Nichols said. “It’s been a long time. We’ve been doing this for 20 years … It’s always a pleasure to come down to play Oxford.”

Nichols said he likes the feeling of the town, a “next-door neighbor” to Lucero’s hometown of Memphis.

He especially likes the town’s books, including those of Larry Brown. Before Brown’s death in 2004, Nichols had the chance to meet Brown twice at Proud Larry’s — once when Brown was very drunk, another when he was very sober.

“I’ve tried to write some songs that were like his short stories,” he said.

Nichols has always been a literary-minded songwriter — most visible on his solo album “The Last Pale Light in the West,” which is based entirely on Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

Lucero’s latest album “Among the Ghosts,” Nichols said, contains pieces borrowed from stories and books. He took a scene from Tim O’Brien’s genre-bending book about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried,” for the song “Everything Has Changed.”

In the story, O’Brien writes of how Lt. Jimmy Cross, conflicted over his war responsibilities and his girlfriend back home, crouches in his foxhole and burns up the letters she wrote him. In Nichols’ version: “She was all I once desired / Burned her letter in the fire / One morning by the river in the rain.”

“Among the Ghosts” also has a visual connection to North Mississippi. Its cover is a tintype of a flooded church taken by Michael Foster, whose studio is located in Water Valley. Lucero’s guitarist, Brian Venable, ran into Foster at an art show and the two connected, leading Foster to come to Memphis to take the band members’ portraits.

In Memphis, Foster showed them the image that now appears on the album.

“We saw that flooded church and immediately fell in love with it, like most people do,” Nichols said. “It’s just such a striking photo, or tintype, actually … I thought it was a perfect match for the tone of the record.”

Another artist that Lucero collaborated with for “Among the Ghosts” is Nichols’s brother, filmmaker Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Loving”), who created a short film based on the song “Long Way Back Home.”

Starring Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”), who has appeared in all of Jeff Nichols’s films, the video provides a visual grittiness to the song’s Southern Gothic crime story. Ben Nichols called it “the coolest thing we’ve ever done.”

Constantly touring and recording since their 1998 founding, Lucero has become a feature of the Memphis music scene. Last year, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland even declared an official “Lucero Day” on the 20th anniversary of the band’s founding.

But the Memphis rock scene’s had a tough past week. Last Saturday, Omar Higgins, the frontman of hardcore punk band Negro Terror, died of a stroke at age 37. Higgins was in Oxford this February to play a concert alongside a documentary about his band.

Nichols said he hopes and believes that Negro Terror, and the grieving Memphis music community, will carry on.

“(Negro Terror is) the kind of band that definitely made a statement and had a message. The whole area needs bands like that,” he said. “I’ve got confidence that the Memphis rock ‘n’ roll scene will continue to be very fruitful. It’s kind of a wild card — you never know what you’re gonna get.”