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Ask anyone who knows the band Lucero and they'll tell you the same thing: This band is like a family. You can see it in the way they act on stage, getting along after 14 years of traveling the country and playing an almost-unheard-of number of shows each year. You can hear it in their songs, whose protagonists are picked off the branches of front man and Little Rock native Ben Nichols' family tree (from "Raisin' Hell," to "Joinin' the Army" to "Mom").
But most of all, you can see it in the way their fans feel about one of their favorite bands. Keeping a tireless touring schedule has allowed Lucero to build a fan base that would follow the Memphis-based octet (formerly quartet) to the end of world, or at least to Batesville, Ark.
This Saturday, at Batesville's Riverside Park, the band will throw its third "annual" family picnic. The picnic tradition started in 2007, with a stellar follow-up in 2008 (with a lineup that included Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, Cory Branan and the sadly defunct The Good Fear). But Lucero's touring schedule and plans for their next records proved to be too much of an obstacle to keep the tradition going.
Nichols said during the last tour (a two-month stint in support of the new record, "Women and Work") he was approached all the time, from fans all around the country, about reviving the picnic to give the band's fans a destination vacation to the Natural State.
"We'd run into people from Chicago or Minneapolis or New York City or even out West," Nichols said, and "a lot of folks said they wanted to travel to Arkansas to hang out with us. That's really cool that people are willing to travel to the picnic. It's not accessible like Bonnaroo or Coachella, but it's like our own little festival."
One fan in Batesville is particularly happy to see the band return. Michael Gross started the "Bring Back the Lucero Family Picnic" fan page after the band skipped a couple of years. The page has a modest following but Gross said he's surprised by the geographical diversity of the "likes."
"It's been from people from as far off as you can imagine: New York and all kinds of places," Gross says. "I know Steve [Thomas, a local promoter] was selling tickets to people in Boston. A guy on the page the other day said he was coming from North Carolina, I believe it was. People load up and travel to come to a little bitty town to see this show, so it's a special deal."
Local business owners are happy too. According to Gross, the last 2008 picnic filled every motel in town and restaurants were running out of food. For the music lover, it's a perfect place for an all-day music event. The stage at Riverside Park is big, giving the bands plenty of room to play. There's a cool breeze off the White River every now and then that makes a late-spring day bearable and there's plenty of room to throw down a blanket.
This year's lineup is a strong one: Birmingham's Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, Memphis-favorites John Paul Keith and The One Four Fives, bad-ass songwriter Austin Lucas (who you might have caught at a house show or two around Little Rock), Murfreesboro, Tenn., stalwarts Glossary, Shooter Jennings and, of course, Lucero.
Nichols said inviting their friends along is one of the best things about putting on the event. "It started off with the idea of inviting friends' bands and bands we'd been on tour with to come to town and hang out and play. It's a real friendly kind of event," Nichols said.
Although Gross took the best stab he could at getting the band back to town, he said it was the work of local promoters that got the picnic back on track. He's just happy to see one of his favorite bands back in Batesville.
"There's a lot of people that have been wanting this back and it just never seemed to line up and we've been waiting and waiting and now we're going to have a really good one," he says.
This year's show will be a bit different. Gates open at 1 p.m., and in addition to the music, there will be a wet zone and water park for kids and an Allstar Wrestling Federation match at 2 p.m. The music gets rolling at 4 p.m. with Luke Williams, followed by Guy Venable, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, John Paul Keith & The One Four Fives, Austin Lucas, Glossary, Shooter Jennings and Lucero. General admission tickets are $22 or $40 for a VIP ticket, which includes a chance to win a guitar autographed by the band.
[Note: an earlier version of this article contained some schedule errors.]
Lucero has not rested since coming off of their recent tour. Shortly after returning to Memphis, the band played with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, as well as other shows in Memphis and Nashville and they recorded a live session at Sun Studios. Nichols said they're just looking forward to a get-together with friends.
"It's going to be a good time," he says. "Batesville's always been extremely welcoming to Lucero. It's kind of a home away from home for the band. Actually all of Arkansas is a home away from home for Lucero. It's going to be nice to be back home and hang out for the day."