Lucero – Spirit in the night
Venable, a Memphis native, also came from a home where music crept at the edges. His father owned Guy’s Shoe & Luggage Repair. His routine: fix shoes in the morning, play the blues on the Beale Street tourist strip at night. Veterans from the Memphis garage-rock scene were always around at his house, so following in their footsteps seemed like the natural thing to do. It wasn’t.
“All he wanted me to do was be a musician. I was surrounded by music and guitars but I never fooled with it,” Venable says. It took his first sessions with Nichols for him to fake it. Nichols showed up with two songs written, Venable nodded, Nichols left. “Then I would go get all my guitar books and videos,” he said.
Venable had three essentials that made Lucero work in the early days: an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history and lore, a huge record collection, and unbridled enthusiasm. Once Berry and Stubblefield joined, the band played basic punk rock until Venable said he “imagined it with some Buck Owens twang.”
“I never knew there were punk kids playing country,” he insists. “I stumbled into a whole genre not knowing it.”
Thumbing through a Spanish-English dictionary one day, Venable spotted the word Lucero, which translated to “any bright star.” The name stuck. “I wanted to follow any bright star,” he figured.
Lucero made records and toured and earned a reputation as an exciting and increasingly confident live band. Between 2001 and 2003, the band released three albums. They stuck to their Memphis roots for the fourth, enlisting town hero Jim Dickinson to produce. Next came Dreaming In America, a documentary film that followed the making of the Dickinson album and probed into the hardships and compromised dreams that are inevitable for bands working in the rock underground.
The band eventually started their own label, Liberty & Lament, which is distributed by East West, a Warner Bros. affiliate. Although Nichols said the band is open to negotiations with labels in the future, they value retaining full ownership of the music. “There is not a lot of money up front,” he allows, “but I own these songs.”
And Lucero certainly owns Memphis.
“Their shows are always big deals,” said Eric Hermeyer of Shangri-La Records, the city’s main indie record shop. “So many other Memphis bands are marginalized — there’s the garage-punk legacy left by [lo-fi 1990s rockers] the Oblivians, but that’s not super accessible to other people. [Lucero’s] an accessible band. People from all different walks of life and all different age groups like them. High school kids come in and buy their CDs, fortysomethings buy their CDs. They have a broader appeal than any other band around here.”
Forming a band in the same spot where rock itself came to fruition creates its own set of expectations that musicians may not encounter in, say, Dubuque. “You just don’t want to let folks down,” Nichols says. “When I came to Memphis I had a romantic idea of being the next Bruce Springsteen, the next Elvis. Then I learned there were all these old R&B bands that toured the circuit between Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas, and no one knows what their names were. I could live with that. You’re a small part of it, but you’re a part of it. No one knows your name, but at least you can say you were there.”
Staying put in Memphis means the band members have the luxury of refusing day jobs. Since 1999, Nichols, Berry and Stubblefield have lived in a shared warehouse space above a variety store. Each has a corner to retreat to, and the loft also doubles as a rehearsal room. Expenses are low, but there’s a price: “It’s a shithole,” Nichols says. “It’s a crappy spot. It’s hot as hell in the summertime and cold as balls in the winter.”
To make Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, the band decided to physically remove itself from that rock ‘n’ roll commune and go to Sound of Music, the studio owned and operated by David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) in Richmond, Virginia. The distance helped Nichols write more concisely.
“It was like summer camp,” he says. Over two weeks he wrote lyrics, fleshed out guitar parts, and summoned the band to record them on the spot. He discovered he could write more as a craftsman and center songs on characters who were not necessarily himself. The detachment makes the songs of Rebels more universal, with the details of every character and situation shaved to the barest essentials.
If Lucero’s continual close quarters helped solidify the band, touring for months on end with no day jobs to rush home to tightened the screws. And that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Venable recalled a drunken fight that turned physical, the toll of road haze. “We are very much a dysfunctional family, and like girlfriend/boyfriend dynamics, you live in that constantly. You never know anybody until you get into a car with them for two months,” he says, but adds: “It also builds bonds.”
Lucero’s desire to become part of a future classic rock soundtrack for a generation in their wake is perhaps a reach, but sometimes it takes individuals with nothing to lose — and no home to speak of — to accomplish such a task. Nichols notes that what brings Lucero together is simply the lack of a life outside music.
“For whatever reason, we have nothing better to do,” he says. “Or deep down there’s a passion for it. The main reason I got them is they were willing to stick around. And that’s hard to find.”
Mark Guarino is the pop music critic for the Chicago Daily Herald, a post he’s held since 1997.