<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> "…Country Music that the Punk Rockers are Going to Hate."
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"…Country Music that the Punk Rockers are Going to Hate."

A country croon here, a feedback drenched solo there, solid soul rhythm, and a straight ahead beat, the best way to coolly describe Lucero might be Indie Southern Gothic. This is music for and from a generation that came of age with worn out, hand me down copies of the Replacements' Tim, stumbled into their mid-twenties with Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and settled down with the early Old 97s and borrowed Uncle Tupelo records.

by George B. Sanchez
Illustration by Brendan Cosgrove

February.1st.2004

Lucero is a group of four guys who make music. They drive from show to show in a white Dodge van and play their music to audiences. Sometimes those audiences are large, like their sold-out, September bar show in San Diego, Calif. –– their first ever in the border metropolis –– and sometimes not, like the scattered crowd of barely 20 bodies two days later in Santa Cruz, Calif. But Lucero, who drove all the way from Memphis, Tenn., to play in California, typically draws a full-capacity and then some crowd. At least in the south they do. There's something about the music –– a distinctive mix of indie, country western, and punk –– that draws people. In fact, that's the opposite of what Lucero expected.

"Basically an old hardcore kid and an emo kid get together and make country music that the punk rockers are going to hate," says Ben Nichols, Lucero's guitarist, lyricist, singer, and self-confessed "emo kid." Sipping a Budweiser in Oakland's Stork Club, he reflects on the plot behind the group's catharsis.

"Memphis, then, was all about His Hero's Gone –– it's not so much punk rock now, but back then there was a big hardcore scene, a lot of straight-edge hardcore."

"Back then" means barely five years ago.

"But it worked out and they ended up liking it," continues Nichols, with a laugh and a smile.

"They" liked it so much that "they" kept coming to Lucero's shows, early shows that were in basements, living rooms, and other Memphis DIY spaces. Eventually "they" came out enough that Lucero band built up the confidence to get out of their comfortable, Memphis scene and take a risk playing to unfamiliar audiences. That was five years ago. And Oakland's a long way from Memphis.


A bit past midnight, Lucero takes the stage at the Stork Club. On tour across the country in support of their fourth full-length release, That Much Further West, they immediately launch into the first song off their first record –– "Little Silver Heart" a wild stomp that's part Replacements, part Wilco, and all heart.

Ben Nichols is a rock n' roll archetype and lead's Lucero as such. He plays a big, hollow body Epiphone guitar like Chuck Berry and wears it down near the knees like Tim Armstrong. With pale arms that are a patch of bad tattoos, he leans on the microphone stand too much, like Shane McGowan, propping himself up under the weight of the lights and the booze. When he peers over the heads of those he is singing to, he squints his eyes, and stares long into the stage lights, as if his gaze alone could bring down the lighting rig. Looking as if he just rolled out of bed, a bar, or off a construction site, he tosses out a name of the next song and the band, lead almost always by Roy Berry's faithful drum beat, follows. Razor thin in faded blue jeans, tattered cowboy boots, and a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, on stage, Nichols is a mess of sweat, swears, and sincerity. Female audience members eye him closely from the floor and bar booths. Not without him taking notice. And the guys –– strangers –– yell out requests or jokes, as if Ben were an old friend. Nichols responds to them all with a short quip in a charming, slight southern accent.

When Ben Nichols moseys up to the mic, his growl beckons to the crowd that has mobbed the floor of the Stork Club. Heads bob and hips sway, beer bottles are raised, and unintelligible hollers battle with the sound of the band. This is rock n' roll. But Lucero's music isn't entirely wild rock n' roll abandon, though admittedly a lot of their songs are about girls and getting drunk.

Where rock n' roll, some would argue, is about late nights and excess, Lucero follows that line a step further, writing about the day after –– that mix of late morning loneliness and primal satisfaction that calls for a cup of coffee to ease the shakes, retracing the steps in your head, the ones that you took the night before, that ultimately brought you here.

Lucero's music is attractive because it's familiar; like an old, patchwork quilt. A country croon here, a feedback drenched solo there, solid soul rhythm, and a straight ahead beat. The best way to coolly describe Lucero might be Indie Southern Gothic. This is music for and from a generation that came of age with worn out, hand me down copies of the Replacements' Tim, stumbled into their mid-twenties with Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and settled down with the early Old 97s and borrowed Uncle Tupelo records.

The band possesses a sound that resides mostly in that margin of subdued, intimate rock n'roll –– those quieter moments when the listener is invited into the chambers of the song writer's heart, into the rooms usually reserved for fear, burden, and love. Not necessarily balladry, but somewhere in between a slow strummed acoustic guitar and a long, sustaining power chord tearing through a Marshall half stack. Indie Southern Gothic: songs of southern fried emotion, drunken ramblings along the Arkansas River, family, and the likes. But most simply compare Lucero to Uncle Tupelo.

"I had never heard Uncle Tupelo when we started," says Nichols, who tries to explain the band's sound and the invariable comparison to the seminal alt.country band they've learned to live with.

"When we started playing in this band, I was thinking, we're like Johnny Cash and the Pogues mixed together and everybody was like, you sound like Uncle Tupelo."

Then Nichols gave Uncle Tupelo a listen.

"I was like, oh shit, we do. I like Uncle Tupelo, I like Wilco ... I love it. But I learned about it later," continues Nichols.

"To me, that's a beautiful thing," adds bassist John Stubblefield.


Rock n' roll was never really about originality. And Saturday night philosophers argue that in art there is no originality, only style and creativity. But when Lucero took form in mid-1998, neither Nichols nor Brian Venable (the "hardcore kid" and original guitarist) knew what it meant to write "country" songs. Both grew up going to $5 punk shows in basements and living rooms. The bands in their reach were His Hero's Gone and Trusty (a Little Rock band who went on to sign with the Washington, DC label Dischord). Honky tonks weren't the stuff of their youth. But they wrote "country" songs anyway.

Ben Nichols mentions the Tom Waits song "Blind Love" as a sort of songwriting guide he followed. But the twangy track off 1985's Raindogs is not what'll be heard tonight in Oakland.

And to arrive, collectively, at nearly the same sound that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy stumbled upon less than a decade ago may be a beautiful thing, as Stubblefield puts it so simply. But it's a sign of something greater.

The music is simple, really. An easy drum beat, melodic, sparse guitar interplay, a couple strummed chords, Stubblefield's driving, southern bass, and Nichols' introspective lyrics. "Jangly rock n' roll", as one Punk Planet writer put it. But, like the forementioned folks, the attitude toward music comes from a no frills, DIY approach that is undeniably punk at its roots, though hardly punk rock in form. Lucero plays outside the lines. How else would you explain the alt.country revamp they give Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle," the b-side, and crowd favorite, from the group's first seven-inch release. Or the nightly cover of "If Only You Were Lonely," an obscure Replacements song. But Roy Berry, the group's drummer, is less philosophical about Lucero's sound.

"I steal drum beats from Ratt. The end of 'Nights Like These' is the beat from 'Lay It Down' by Ratt," says Berry, whose jaw doesn't seem to move when he speaks. His jaw holds place, teeth sit together and only his lips move as he explains where he finds inspiration for Lucero's rhythm. "That's how I learn beats. I hear other peoples stuff –– 'wow, that's cool, I'll learn how to play that.' Even if it's a drum machine, it doesn't matter if it's a cool beat."

No band likes to label their sound, but Nichols becomes incensed when bandmate Stubblefield jokingly refers to the band's sound as "Podunk indie rock." Nichols grabs hold of the tape recorder while his bandmates laugh at his defensiveness to Stubblefield's suggestion. Nichols makes sure to speak loud into the tape recorder, asking the reporter not to take note of the bassists' words.

Nichols then reflects his friends' laughter and his obvious discomfort with the Podunk label.

"Hell, you could say country influenced indie rock, I'll take that, sure. Southern indie rock ... I don't know," he breaks down, seemingly frustrated by the simple fact that his band has a sound not easily categorized, something he fought for as a songwriter.

Listening to That Much Further West, Lucero's fourth full-length release, the irony in Stubblefield's remark rings loud. If he meant Podunk because half the group hails from Arkansas, it's an inside joke, because there's no small, backward tone to be heard. The indie influence –– guitarist Todd Gill jumps to pledge his allegiance to Superchunk –– is obvious. Unlike the group's first recordings, recently re-released as The Attic Tapes, the guitars are played in quick, muted strokes, as opposed as to full, acoustic strums that echo and ring. "Tonight Ain't gonna' Be Good" and "Tears Don't Matter Much" are full out stomps anchored by subtle guitar riffs. The urgent insistency of Gill and Nichol's playing, holding to a single, distorted note through out much of the title track's verses and chorus display a song craftsmanship that's evidence of greater indie rock influence. Nichols voice croaks and growls as opposed to the tender crooning he later displays on the heartbreaking self-epiphany "When You Decided to Leave."


It's a quarter to two in the morning, September 13, 2003. An audience, more like a crowd, of about 40 people arches around the hood of a beat up El Camino outside of the Stork Club. The show is over and they've all followed Nichols outside, who's leaning against the El Camino's shit brown side panel. The club's sound guy pulled the plug on the band about five minutes ago but Nichols still wants to play. The folks on the outside of the arc are smoking, laughing, flirting, and engaging in post-show conversation, but Nichols pays them little attention. His white T-shirt and ripped and faded blue jeans are soaked in his own sweat. Strumming the first chords to "Ring of Fire," Nichols is paying tribute to his fallen hero, Johnny Cash, who has been on his mind since passing away yesterday morning. The singer is pushing his already thrashed vocals chords to their limits. He's a chorus or two away from going totally hoarse and has been warned not to get much louder because the owner is worried about the cops or angry neighbors.

But Lucero is in Oakland tonight. Cops out here have better things to do than deal with complaints about a loud group of folks singing old country songs on the side walk. Proof of that arrives when a police cruiser races down the street, lights on, sirens blaring, headed anywhere but here.

Making do with what's before him at the moment, Nichols rallies to sing one more song, a Springsteen song that's unrecognizable except for the fact that Nichols prefaced the song as such. He strums a couple chords and begins to sing: The runway rushed up at him/As he felt the wheels touch down/he stood out on the black top/and took a taxi into town

Only a couple folks recognize the song. Most just nod their head in approval. Nichols voice is now shredded but his heart is in it and it sounds good.

He got out down on main street/and went in to a local bar/he bought a drink and found a seat/in a corner/in the dark

Besides, Lucero didn't start out playing familiar songs to acquainted audiences. In fact, they started out not too far from this.

Mama, mama, mama, come quick/I got the shakes and I'm gonna' be sick/throw your arms around me in the cold dark night/hey now mama don't shut out the light/don't you shut out the light/don't you shut out the light/don't you shut out the light

And this is good.




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