photo by Justin Fox Burks
Lucero (left to right): Scott Thompson (top left), John C. Stubblefield (bottom left), Jim Spake, Todd Beene, Ben Nichols, Rick Steff, Brian Venable, Roy Berry.
Is there an antecedent in Memphis music for Lucero? The versatile, roots-oriented rock band released their eighth album — Women & Work — last month and, absent a one-album hiatus from guitarist Brian Venable early in their career, the same four core members (Venable, frontman Ben Nichols, drummer Roy Berry, bassist John C. Stubblefield) have been on the road together for probably close to 200 concerts a year for more than a decade.
“You don’t hear about bands doing 14 years much anymore,” Venable says. “We always did it different. We all moved in together. We knew we wanted it.”
That got them started. It got them on the road early and often where most bands stagnate playing hometown clubs. And that focus — and steadily growing success — has helped them keep it going.
These days, however, it’s more than that core-four on the road. As the band departed Memphis in mid-March for a cross-country “Women & Work Tour,” it wasn’t four guys in a van like in the early days. It was 12 people on a bus. Over their last three albums, Lucero has expanded, first adding longtime Memphis session ace Rick Steff (keyboards, accordion, whatever else he gets his hands on) as a full-time member after 2006’s Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers, then Little Rock-based pedal-steel player Todd Beene on 2009’s 1372 Overton Park. And on Women & Work, saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson became auxiliary members of the band, fully collaborating in the studio and joining them on the road when possible. Throw in a tour manager, a merchandise person, and two sound techs/roadies, and Lucero’s almost a mobile industry these days.
And the music has evolved along with the personnel. The band’s early, novel fusion of punk and country was full of unexpected space and dynamics. This morphed into a somewhat more conventional bar-band sound mid-career. But over the last three albums, the band has been expanding its sonic palette, using the added members to reach into soul, blues, and classic-rock territory.
“I think it took us a long time to get comfortable with what we wanted to do,” Venable says. “For awhile with every record the attitude was, ‘Oh crap, we’re making a record’ — and then we’d add things.”
“Every record was more of a reinvention of the band,” Berry says.
But with Women & Work, the band mostly stuck with the previous formula: Same instrumental makeup, same locale (the hometown Ardent Studios), and same producer (Brit rock producer Ted Hutt). The biggest difference is that, where horns had made their debut on 1372 Overton Park, they were a more settled part of the equation on Women & Work.
"We're proud of home. The older you get, the more 'country' you get to some degree. We are Lucero, from Memphis, Tennessee. We've said it across the world." — Brian Venable
“The last time it was Lucero … with horns,” Stubblefield says. “The horns were added to the top of what we were already doing. This time, they had been out on the road with us and were an integral part of the demos for the album. It was more collaborative. They were a real part of the band.”
As a result, Stubblefield says, the new album is “less of a reinvention than a realization.”
“We’re having a good time doing what we’re doing,” Berry says of the comfort zone the band has currently found itself in. “You start with more of a formula and then your real influences start coming in. You let them in more and more and find your common ground with your fellow musicians, and the overlap is kind of where the band lies. That’s where we’ve gotten to, I think.”
Women & Work gets off to a grand, spirited start with scene-setting “On the Way Downtown” and the boogie-woogie wisdom of the title track. This is “classic rock” from a Southern perspective — more Muscle Shoals than E Street.
“It’s part on purpose and part inadvertent,” Venable says of the way the band’s punk roots have yielded a particularly diverse take on Southern rock. “We’re proud of home. The older you get, the more ‘country’ you get to some degree. We are Lucero, from Memphis, Tennessee. We’ve said it across the world.”
At points, the album strays into related but more far-out territory: The lilting soul of “It May Be Too Late,” the relatively straight (hill-country) blues of “Juniper,” and the Presleyan Southern gospel of “Go Easy.”
And Nichols turns introspective on the paired “When I Was Young” and “Sometimes,” solitary middle-of-the-night musings on old loves and family, respectively.