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The second track on Lucero's new record pretty much sums up the last 10 years of Ben Nichols' life. In the last verse of the song “What are you willing to lose?” Nichols asks, ?as horns blare and guitars swell, “So what if all my heroes are the losing kind? Not a chance in hell but still they lay it on the line. Would you give it all away for what you want to do? Would you keep on going if you couldn't make it through? What are you willing to lose?”
Since the band formed in 1999, Nichols, 35, and his band mates, Brian Venable, John Stubblefield and Roy Berry, have been on the road. A lot. The foursome quickly became a local favorite in Memphis before deciding to cast their lot together, for better or worse, on the road. Since then the band has played close to 200 shows per year, building its fan base one smoke-filled bar at a time. For Nichols, ‘What are you willing to lose?” is a fitting anthem for guys that decided long ago they would make it as musicians, consequences be damned.
“I don't think there's any turning back,” Nichols says. “There hasn't been any turning back for us for a long time now, but it's only slowly dawning on me. It wasn't until recently that I said to myself, ‘We're actually getting away with this scam. We're getting away with this.' Now, so much time has passed that we can't really do anything else. I don't have any other skills, really. I have a feeling I'd have a tough time getting hired for any real job.”
Sitting on a black leather couch in the back of a well-equipped tour bus, Nichols is miles away — literally, figuratively and artistically — from the back of his dad's furniture store in Little Rock, where he would set up a guitar amp and a microphone and scream all night, teaching himself how to sing and getting comfortable with his voice. Nichols spent some time playing bass in a couple of Little Rock bands, including the punk outfit Red 40. After graduating from Hendrix College in Conway, he “followed a girl to Memphis” and started looking for a new band. That's when he met lead guitarist Brian Venable.
“Brian had never been in a band before and wanted to give it a shot. So one night he walked up — and he regrets it to this day — but he said he wanted to start a country-emo band. And I said yeah. I had never played guitar in a band and neither had he, so we kind of learned together. We just wanted to play punk rock shows, and play this kind of soft country music just to piss off the punk rockers.”
Stubblefield and Berry soon joined and now, 10 years and seven records later, all the touring, the long rides in the van and the late night shows seem to have paid off. Lucero's reputation as a hard-working, hard-living, country-influenced rock band has taken shape slowly but surely. Its catalogue has done the same, shifting from the softer, lilting drinking tunes of the first couple of records and progressing into straight-forward, raunchy country rock with the band's later albums. The band is currently touring in support of its new album, “1372 Overton Park,” and recently signed a major-label record deal with Universal/Republic.
“Things are going all right right at the moment,” Nichols says. “If it did stay at this level, I could do this for a long time. Selling a few more records wouldn't be a bad thing. But I think we've actually been really lucky getting this far and doing it for as long as we have. Hopefully we'll be able to continue doing it for a long, long time.”
But things weren't always so easy. No one knows this better than Nichols' parents, John and Joan Nichols.
“I just thought he would be in a band for awhile and then go into something else,” Joan Nichols says. “But now he's been in Memphis about 10 years and this is his passion, it's what he wants to do.”
Ben's father agrees.
“It dawned on me when he was about 25, when he was starting Lucero, that he was going to be a musician, one way or the other, his whole life. So, I kind of gave up with my ‘Let's do something else' speech. It started to be more like ‘try to make a living at it,' which is hard. It's very hard for any musician to make a living. One of the guys in the band said if you could see yourself doing anything else, then you wouldn't do this. It's a very hard life.”
But Nichols says now that the band has established itself, his parents have come around to the idea of their oldest son living the life of a troubadour.
“With my dad, at first it was just hair-brained rock ‘n' roll, but now he's really excited about it,” Nichols says. “For the first six years of the band he was just like, ‘You can't put that many miles on a vehicle. You're throwing money away.' He just didn't really see how it was going to work. But then he got a laptop and started following us and looking us up on-line and he kind of saw more of what we were actually doing. So it kind of clicked for him and now he's really excited and really happy for us.”
The Nicholses are proud that Ben and the rest of Lucero are getting to do what they love, but that doesn't stop them from worrying about the time their son spends on the road, in bars or on the stage.
“They literally play too much,” John Nichols says. “There's hardly one night off in the next 50 days. They'll play about 40 shows and then spend three or four nights in a row traveling half way across the country. And I worry about him because he doesn't really have a governor. If somebody wants him to do something he will pretty much do it. He won't say ‘no' very much.”
“He's not good at pacing himself,” his mother adds. “He's not good at conserving his strength and his voice. If he doesn't have a voice, then there's no show.”
Nichols admits they're right. “I don't really turn down shots,” he says. “And I should probably take better care of my voice.”
And his voice, love it or hate it, is probably one of the most defining qualities of Lucero's music. It's rough around the edges, to say the least. Rarely is a review written without using the word “gravel” to describe it in some way. Other adjectives like whiskey-soaked, weathered, gristly, haggard, raw, raspy or and rock-scarred are common as well.
“It works for Tom Waits,” Nichols jokes. “No, they either love it or they hate it, that's for sure. Some people can't stand to listen to us because they think it's just awful. But I'm comfortable singing that way and I've abused my vocal chords for the last 14 years so it's just gotten more gravelly. I don't really think about it but it's definitely something that other people notice.”
“Honestly, I don't know how Ben can even speak,” says Matt White, owner of the White Water Tavern. White has seen bands come and go over the years and there are few that work as hard as Lucero, he says.
“Can you imagine shredding your vocal chords for two hours every night like he does? To do that is pretty impressive.”
White has been around the Little Rock music scene for some time now, either as a member of band, a fan or, now, a bar owner. He even booked the show the first time Lucero played at the Soundstage in Conway years ago. Now, even though Lucero has really outgrown the Whitewater Tavern and similar-sized venues in town, White books it as often as possible. Lucero played to a sold-out crowd last January, as it had done one year before.
“The White Water Tavern is my favorite bar on the planet,” Nichols says. “There's no place I feel more comfortable. I think some nights I've felt way too comfortable in that place.”
The bar features prominently in “Darken My Door,” a song off the new release. Nichols croons over a clean guitar and a slow drum beat, “Whitewater Tavern nights, old songs and cheap red wine, there's no finer mess to be found.”
It's a song that's exemplifies what the band does best — heartfelt bar-ballads, yearning for lost or unrequited love combined with a healthy dose of booze and cigarettes. But for all its familiarity, there's something different about this song, and others on this record — a very prominent horn section. It's a welcome addition to the band's sound and one that's likely to stir some pretty heated debate among die-hard Lucero fans.
“The first time I heard “Darken My Door,” I was just floored,” White says. “I'm really excited about the horns on the record too. I think it brings a new energy and more importantly, I think it's really going to re-charge them as a band. I mean, they've been playing a lot of these songs for years and years, but to have that new energy on stage I think will kind of reignite them. It is very different from the first record, which is very clean and slow and super-elegant. But this stuff is more upbeat and has a whole lot more going on. I think people are going to be right along with them.”
The horns are just the latest addition. Veteran Memphis musician Rick Steff came on board for the band's 2006 release “Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers.” After the record was released, the band added Todd Beene, of Glossary, to play pedal steel. With each new layer of instrumentation, the band's sound has become more complex, yet it remains true to its earliest recordings.
“Say what you will about it,” says White, “it's still a Lucero record. Sonically, I was blown away by how it sounded. I mean, it's just another huge jump for them in terms of production. It just sounded really full and incredible.”
That full “Memphis sound” was something the band was shooting for early in the recording process. The addition of the horns, courtesy of soul veteran Jim Spake, set a path for the band to follow throughout the recording process.
“It was kind of an experiment and immediately we were like, yeah that's it,” Nichols says. “Once we realized that it worked and that it was so fun, the rest of the record got molded around that idea. When I was originally writing the songs, I didn't know we were going to end up with such a big sound, but once it started coming together we went as far down that road as we could.”
Nichols says the evolution of the band's sound has a lot to do with the influence of the late Jim Dickinson. Dickinson, also a Little Rock native, produced the band's last two records.
“The big sound was really one of Jim's ideas. He had a lot of pride in Memphis music and was always working with us and leading us that way. This is definitely the album I wanted to make right now. With each record we've really learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. Our next record, who knows? It could be an acoustic-based record for all I know,” Nichols says.
During the making of the band's fifth album, “Nobody's Darlings,” Dickinson was quoted as saying, “Good music makes sparks and it's my job to focus on the sparks.”
When reminded of this, Nichols laughs.
“Well, we were shootin' for some sparks all right. We were just trying not to set the whole thing on fire and burn it to the ground.”
So far, “Overton Park” has been well-received critically. The album received high marks from the Onion's A.V. Club and SPIN magazine. But while Nichols seems to enjoy the acclaim, the larger crowds and the comfort that a major-label record deal can bring, he jokes that the whole thing could derail at any moment.
“Being screw-ups is kind of part of what Lucero is,” he laughs. “We've gotten away with it so far. Hopefully folks find it somewhat endearing if we don't just turn them off completely, which we've done to plenty of folks.”
Though it may seem like a hard life to some — being on the road, missing family, working unusual hours — Nichols relishes it most, if not all, of the time.
“I had always wanted to be in a band and the idea of going on the road seemed really romantic,” he says. “It's something I always wanted to do. I didn't figure that Lucero would be that band. We just wanted to play around town so we started trying to book our own shows just like everybody else. We just never stopped.”
White says the reason Lucero has reached the level of success it has is fairly simple. They play shows all the time.
“There are so many people that talk about making it and it's easy to talk about being on the road and doing that for a living. But he's one of the only people that I know that's really stepped up and is doing it. It seems like Ben is really just built to do what he does and there aren't a lot of folks out there that can do that. It's a rare thing,” White says.
“We never hesitated to get in the van and just go to work,” Nichols says. “There are a lot of bands that just can't do it. Either folks have jobs or families, all my guys, up until recently at least, no one's married. Brian just had a baby. But for the last 10 years we've been fairly unattached. And I think you have to do that. It's taking that plunge and just committing yourself to the band. It doesn't leave a lot of time for stuff back home but you have to do that. At least, I don't know any other way to do it. And I'm proud of that. I think we've been very lucky and folks have been really good to us, but I know how hard we've worked and I'm really proud of that fact.”
Though he might not get to spend as much time “back home” as he might like, it's evident, in both our conversations and the band's catalogue, that family is very important to the somewhat reluctant front-man. Nichols is the oldest of three boys and says the support and acceptance of his family is important.
“My brothers are both big music fans so their opinion is definitely very important to me. And just being raised the way I was, I think I would feel really strange doing something that I wasn't proud to take home to the family. I want it to be good and I want them to appreciate what I'm doing,” he says.
The last song on “Overton Park” is called “Mom.” It's a slow, pretty tune in which Nichols tells his mother, “Home might scatter and fade. With time, all things must change. The road, it might take its own course. But at its end, Mamma we're still your boys.”
John Nichols says the song is his new favorite. As for his mother, she tears up at the mere mention of the song.
“It just rang true,” she says. “He's just so much a part of us, and he wants to do what he's doing so badly, and we're proud of him, but yet it's been hard at times.”
“From a mother's standpoint it's the lifestyle. I know he's not eating, I know he's not sleeping. Sometimes I ask myself why doesn't he just want a normal life?” she says with a chuckle. “But he tells me, ‘Mom, this is my normal life. And it's going to get better. It's going to get easier.' I remember us having that conversation. I said, ‘Well aren't you tired of living this way?' And he said, ‘No, I want a better life too and we're going to get there.' And I think he is. He is getting there.”