Lucero, a road-tested outfit from Memphis, Tenn., has been dealing with attempts to categorize their music for years now. It doesn’t seem like singer and rhythm guitarist Ben Nichols minds the constant questions about how they define themselves, though. He just takes the Occam’s Razor approach that says the simplest explanation is usually correct. “We’ve been labeled this and we’ve been labeled that,” says Nichols. “But over the years, it’s just boiled down to being an American rock ‘n’ roll band with influences from all over the place — from country music to punk rock.” Those influences and more converge on the band’s major label debut, 1372 Overton Park.
Named for the cheap upstairs apartment where the band all lived — which was once a karate dojo frequented by the king himself, Elvis Presley — the album sees Lucero paying homage to Memphis’ musical legends and dusting off that style for a new generation. The most striking evidence of that is the inclusion of a horn section on 1372. Arranged by Jim Spake (session player for the likes of Al Green, John Hiatt and Solomon Burke), the horns give off the soul music vibe that was once so prevalent in Memphis. Recently, Nichols talked with CMT.com about how country music made an impact on him, his thoughts on the Memphis musical tradition and Townes Van Zandt‘s pickup lines.
CMT: Since you started off in a punk rock band, what drew you toward country music?
Ben Nichols: I moved to Memphis in ’96 and met Brian Venable, my guitar player. He was working at a record store and kind of educated me on re-appreciating where we’re from and the music that was made in Tennessee and Arkansas. He just educated me on country music.
Did you find any similarities between punk rock and country?
Oh yeah, for sure. They’re both, at least in their original form, kind of music of the people. And the good songs are usually pretty simple and straightforward. I think there’s a certain honesty that’s kind of integral to both genres of music. That’s a big part of why I appreciate both country music and punk rock music because it just kind of lays it on the line. No bullshit.
Are those the parts of country music that show up in the band?
I don’t know. In the old days we were definitely going for a softer, quiet kind of country show. But the [country] songwriting itself, Willie Nelson and even Townes Van Zandt, has been a major influence for a long time. Steve Earle, that kind of stuff. It’s always in the back of my mind when I’m writing songs. They might turn out to be a little more rock ‘n’ roll, but as far as the craft of songwriting goes, those country songwriters are the ones that really get you. That’s what I’m shooting for.
I heard “Hey Darling Do You Gamble” [off the new album] was actually a Townes Van Zandt pickup line. Is that true?
It was. There was a documentary called Be Here to Love Me, and they were interviewing his third wife, and she said that’s the line he used. He walked up to the bar and said “Hey darling, do you gamble?” and she knew from that moment on that he was the one. And I thought “Oh, that line is great! I’ve got to use that.”
I really like “Darken My Door.” What does that song mean to you?
“Darken My Door” is a nostalgic song for me. The White Water Tavern, which I mention in the second verse, is literally my favorite bar on the planet. It’s just a little roadhouse outside of downtown Little Rock, and I just want to get the right girl and sit at the White Water with a good band playing. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Another one I really liked is “Sixes and Sevens.” You’ll probably say I’m way off, but it reminds of early Sun Records rock ‘n’ roll.
I think that’s spot on. It’s funny, when folks listen to your new music, it’s funny how whatever baggage they bring along with them influences what they hear. That’s the song that whoever’s listening to it hears it differently — they filter it through their musical knowledge. To some people, it sounds like a jam band, to some people it sounds like who-knows-what. For me, I was thinking that Brian’s guitar was like Steve Cropper, Booker T and the MG’s type guitar over this kind of Southern, bluesy guitar riff that’s the main portion of the song. It might be about a stripper in New Orleans. People either love it or they hate it. It’s definitely a stretch for Lucero, but I think it was a good move, and I’m really happy with that song.
About the horns on the album, do you think there is a traditional Memphis sound?
Yeah, and I know I’m not an expert, but just Stax Records and the Memphis Horns and what they were doing on all those Otis Redding records. I think they definitely created something that really influenced the world of music. There are differences between the Muscle Shoals sound or the Detroit sound or the Chicago sound and the Memphis Horns. They carved out a sound of their own, and they made some the best music ever made. Memphis in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, it was just something really special. So I think Lucero has always had a certain soulful quality, especially the slow songs, and on this record with the addition of Jim Spake and the horn section, we were just trying to accentuate that soulful quality and make it a little more Memphis specific.
Do you think that Memphis sound is still there, or has it gone away?
It’s tough. Times change I guess. There are still older guys around doing it and we found some younger guys that know their chops and their history. But yeah, to tell you the truth, it’s not like you can come to Memphis and there’s a whole bunch of young soul bands. It just doesn’t exist the way it used to. So any opportunity to use that sound in today’s music should be pursued.